PLANKINTON, S.D. — It’s a day that those who were there will never forget.
Twenty years ago, Nov. 17, 2000, in the school gymnasium in Plankinton, S.D., where several students and other school personnel were taking part in open gym and wrestling practice, a handful of students emerged from a locker room, reporting an odd smell. Exercising an abundance of concern, staff moved students from the facilities to other locations for their activities or sent them home, allowing school officials to inspect the matter more closely.
A short time later, an explosion ripped through the building, leveling the school and killing Dave Grode, CEO for the Plankinton School District, and Pat Phillips, a custodian with the school, and injuring firefighter John Harless, all of whom had gone into the building to check the source of the odor.
It was a propane leak, and the resulting explosion took the lives of two school employees and changed the course of the school and community for years.
'They saved a lot of lives that day'
The explosion destroyed the school building and started a fire, gutting the original brick school building. Rescuers continued to work through the night and into Saturday putting out the blaze. Phillips managed to escape the building but later died of his injuries, while Grode remained trapped beneath the rubble for some time, communicating with emergency workers before dying.
Todd Karst, 55, is one of a handful of Plankinton School District staff who are still with the district 20 years later, and the memories of the incident are still fresh in his mind.
“I was in the gym that night,” Karst told Forum News Service in a recent interview. “Dave Grode and Pat Phillips saved a lot of lives that day. They sacrificed themselves for the good of the many, and we have to be thankful for that.”
With people out of the building, Karst decided to head home, about 15 miles outside town. He had just arrived when his wife gave him the stunning news.
“I literally drove in my yard 15 minutes later, and my wife said the school building just blew up,” Karst said. “So we just rushed back in. The firefighters were already there, and we just stood there. Everybody was just trying to figure out what was going on.”
He gathered to watch with other teachers and staff as emergency workers did what they could. The weight of the situation quickly washed over them.
“We were trying to be cool, but crying,” Karst said.
Thinking back leads those who were there to recall the bravery and selflessness of the three men, especially Grode and Phillips, whom school employees all knew and worked with closely in their time at the district.
Jill Harris, 56, is another current teacher who was working with the district in 2000. She had left for the day and was eating dinner at home outside of town when the news trickled in about the explosion.
“I got a phone call from a friend in town, asking what is going on at the school,” Harris said, adding the friend had heard a loud noise that had rattled the fixtures in their home. “I called another friend and started to get worried. My husband said let’s get in the pickup and go see what’s happening.”
When they arrived on the scene, she shared a similar sentiment to what Karst had described.
“It was just life-changing in an instant,” Harris said.
She knew the situation was grave. She knew Phillips had escaped the building, but was badly injured. Harless had also escaped with injuries, but Grode was trapped in the rubble.
“Dave was trapped, and we spent most of the night trying to hear something,” Harris said.
She recalled Grode as a dedicated professional who earned friends in the district with a level head and thoughtful approach to leadership.
“I admired him greatly for his calm influence and voice of reason. I believe he was a natural leader. He could look at different sides and pretty much calm the waters,” Harris said. “I really enjoyed working with him.”
Phillips was a constant presence at the school and its events, taking special enjoyment from the school plays students would perform every year. Students knew him well and he knew them, she said.
“He loved working with students. Every day of his job was different. He could walk among the students and laugh with them and brighten up their day,” Harris said. “I just had great conversations with him. That’s what I remember.”
The explosion and loss of life brought the community of about 700 people on Interstate 90 closer together in an effort to both soldier on for the sake of the students’ education but also for the memory of their fallen colleagues. Remaining school leaders arranged to continue classes in a number of churches in town for the elementary students, while high school students were transferred to what was then known as the South Dakota State Training School until temporary structures could be arranged. Other area schools offered classroom space or gymnasium space for practices or games.
Donations for the school poured in from around the state and country. The explosion had taken almost every bit of school supplies with it, and everything from notebooks to pencils were in short supply. Harris said she was one of the few teachers who had taken her lesson plans home with her that evening, with many others having to start over from scratch.
An unused downtown building became a depository for donations, where teachers and students could stop and pick up donated supplies.
“It was truly amazing. We had a building on the corner of Main Street that was no longer in use as a business, but we had so many community members who said they would step up. Backpacks, pens, pencils, you name it were pouring in from all over the state and country. It became almost like a store — you could go and get 23 notebooks and take them to your room,” Harris said.
Slowly but surely, the district and community began to put the pieces back together. A new school building was erected in 2003 and another expansion added in 2016, and a sense of relative normalcy began to settle back into the school.
Today, a small memorial marks the spot of the event near the current school building, and the school gymnasium is named after Grode and Phillips in tribute to their actions.
Steve Randall, current superintendent for the Plankinton School District, was a school administrator in Platte, S.D., at the time of the explosion. He knew Grode, and said he served as an example of what a school leader would take on if it meant keeping the students and staff in his charge safe.
“He was a prime example of what a superintendent would do to protect their school. They would find the situation and what was going on and find out for everybody’s sake,” Randall said.
Earlier this week, students and staff from the school made their way to the site of the explosion for a luminary event, taking the time to reflect on what the three men did for the safety of those who were in the school that night. It was a chance to remind the students, none of whom weren’t even born when the explosion took place, what occurred on that spot.
“I told the freshmen — whom I walked down with — the story and said we’re going down there with a lot of respect. They saved a lot of kids your age that day,” Karst said. “It stirred up a lot of memories.”
He said the students responded, asking questions about them and inquiring about photos of those who died.
Harris said it was a moving moment, knowing the current generation of students and staff hold those who are no longer among them close in memory. And it was a chance for her to open up about the pain that was so strong in the time after the explosion.
“I hadn’t really talked about it, so I did Tuesday talking with the kids. You don’t realize how much you keep inside,” Harris said.
Karst said he’ll forever remember the people who acted swiftly to protect their students and colleagues. He was there, knew the men and has seen the memorials to Grode and Phillips.
The memory of those who were lost still lives on in the community and the school that has since risen to replace the old, he said.
“I think the biggest thing a person that lived through that learns is how a community, you hear this all the time, came together around a tragedy. And of course somehow we’re sitting in our new building. We have a memorial in our gym named after them,” Karst said. “Their sacrifice saved lives and brought a community together. Out of those ashes rose a new school for how many countless kids to graduate from and learn in.”