from Eyewitness News Online
Feb. 26, 1972 - Flooding Kills 125, Following Collapse Of Coal Waste Dam At Buffalo Creek (Part 1)
By Heath Harrison
February 26, 2014
On the morning of Feb, 26,1972, a leak of 132 million gallons of coal waste, forming a wall of toxic water 30 feet high, broke through a gob dam in Logan County.
Within three hours, the wave, traveling at seven feet a second, tore through 15 miles of the communities of Buffalo Creek, wiping out nearly everything in its path.
Following the flood, 125 people were dead, 1,000 were injured and 4,000 were left homeless in one of the worst industrial accidents in U.S. history.
The coal company declared the flood "an act of God" and largely escaped accountability, but the man-made disaster sparked calls for more oversight and regulation of industry which continue to this day.
Like many similarly named hollows in the state, the 17-mile Buffalo Creek in Logan County was named for the wild herds of American Bison roamed West Virginia into the 1800s.
The area, home to such coal mining communities as Saunders, Pardee, Lorado, Craneco, Lundale, Stowe, Crites, Latrobe, Robinette, Amherstdale, Becco, Fanco, Braeholm, Accoville, Crown and Kistler, first saw development after a Chesapeake and Ohio Railway spur line was completed in 1914 and led to a mining boom.
With the advent of mechanized mining methods, the population of the area began to drop after 1950, though the coal industry remained central to the region’s political and economic life.
Construction of dams
In 1957, the Pittston Coal Company’s subsidiary, Buffalo Mining Company, began dumping gob, the waste from strip mining operations, into Buffalo Creek’s Middle Fork branch. In 1960, the company built its first gob dam at Middle Fork’s mouth, one mile north of the unincorporated town of Saunders. As the company began dumping waste further upstream, it constructed two more dams in 1966 and 1972, creating multiple of pools of gob throughout the waterway.
Concerns about the safety of the dams were raised in the decade leading up to the disaster.
Former U.S. Rep. Ken Hechler served what was then West Virginia's fourth Congressional district, which included Logan County and Buffalo Creek.
Hechler said his office received numerous calls from residents worried about the stability of the dams, leading him to call Gov. Hulett C. Smith, to try to get officials to take notice of the situation.
“I said, ‘I want you to assess the leadership of the state, and ask Congress to send representatives down here to see how terrible the conditions were,” Hechler said.
Hechler toured the region extensively, gathering information on the dams and mining operations. He recalled one 86-year-old man who contacted him, who had six feet of water in his basement from mine runoff.
“Whenever there was rain, the debris from the hillside had drained down into the towns,” Hechler said. “There was a Sword of Damocles hanging of their heads.”
Inspections were conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, and officials concluded the dams could be susceptible to wash-outs.
Hechler said his office publicized their findings in 1969, and called on federal and state officials, now under Gov. Arch Moore, to take action.
“We had enough to realize that the main dam at the head of posed a danger to people all along the creek,” Hechler said.
A collapse of a similar dam in Aberfan, Wales on Oct. 21, 1966, killing 144 people, had further elevated concerns.
But Hechler said his warnings were not heeded and officials failed to act.
“They said, ‘We don’t want to interrupt the production of coal,’ “ Hechler said. They were more concerned with jobs than the threat.”
Hechler said when catastrophe struck three years later, he was not surprised.
“The history of Buffalo Creek had pointed to the fact that this was a disaster waiting to happen,” he said.
On Feb 22, a federal mine inspector visited the dams and, along Pittston’s with safety engineer, declared conditions “satisfactory.”
Feb. 26, 1972
At 1:30 a.m. on Feb. 26, 1972, following several days of continuous heavy rain in the area, water at Dam No. 3 was rising at a rate of two inches and hour and was only 12 inches away from the crest. Water could be seen oozing through the surface of the dam as the deluge continued.
Local officials had been measuring the rise of the water for the past night and contacted a Pittston official in the area, but no action was taken to notify the community of the increasingly volatile situation. Two county sheriffs arrived to assist with evacuations, but they were turned away by company officials. News of the danger began to spread by word of mouth throughout Buffalo Creek and some Saunders residents moved to higher ground.
Shortly before 8:00 a.m., the water reached the crest of the dam. A heavy equipment operator at the scene discovered the situation and noted that the dam had become “real soggy.”
At 8:05 a.m., Dam No. 3 collapsed, spilling its contents into the other two impoundments and obliterating them, then hitting a burning pile of coal waste and causing a massive explosion. It then moved down the valley, first striking the community of Saunders, then taking out one town after another.
Buildings were swept off their foundations, and many survivors recalled seeing homes drift by, with their occupants trapped inside and trying to escape through the windows.
Stan Jeffrey, now of Pineville, was 16 at the time and described the sight of the wave moving in.
“On Saturday morning, my dad, Bill Jeffery, and I noticed the power went out and we walked outside,” he said “We heard what we though was a freight train coming down the creek. We looked between two buildings and saw a mobile home flipping on top of a black wave. At that point, we knew what was happening, so we ran inside got the family in the car and drove up the holler for safe coverage. After a while, we drove back down to see what happen and couldn't believe what we saw.”
Hechler recalled the scene in the days after the flood.
“I hitched a ride with the Corps of Engineers airplane the day after the disaster and, looking down on the scene, I could see in many communities the only thing that was left standing was the company store,” he said.
In the following months, he would hear the accounts of many of the survivors.
“They told horrendous stories of how, during the flood, they tried to hold onto members of their family and they slipped away,” he said. “They didn’t see them again until the morgue, when their bodies were recovered.”
Anna Monreal, now of Mooresville, N.C., who lived nearby, recalled hearing the news.
“I remember my mom and I walking down the holler, and here came my brother, running up it to tell us to go back that the dam broke,” she said. “He was spending the night somewhere nearer the mouth of the holler. He wasn't even completely dressed. Once we could go down, I remember seeing all the destruction. I was five, but I remember seeing all of that. I remember being told that my best friend Darla Dillon died. … Davey Hollow was spared, but the effects have lasted a lifetime. I still hate thunder storms.”
At 10 a.m., the water reached the Guyandotte River, having wiped out nearly everything in its path. In addition to the death toll, 546 homes were destroyed, and 943 homes were damaged. 1,000 cars and trucks were destroyed and property damage was estimated at $50 million.
Rebecca Baldwin, of Weston, had relatives in Logan County and remembers visiting the scene.
“They took us out to see Buffalo Creek after the water had receded, but I remember there was toilet paper way up in the top of a tree,” she said. “We stood in the road looking up at it. My great uncle Bill exclaimed that the water must have been that high. My great aunt Nell told a story, which she always did, about a man who had taken all of his savings out of the bank the night before. He and his wife were going to buy a truck. The money was all lost in the flood.”
For the second installment of this piece, detailing the aftermath of the disaster, the survival of the “Miracle Baby” of Buffalo Creek and lessons learned from the flood, go here
Victims of the Buffalo Creek Disaster
- Brookie Mae Adkins, 31, Lundale, W.Va.
This installment’s video contains two clips – First, a 2002 WCHS report by Kennie Bass from the 30th anniversary of the flood, featuring accounts of survivors, followed by silent footage, courtesy of the West Virginia State Archives at the Culture Center, showing Buffalo Creek in the aftermath of the flood.
Special thanks to Hechler, Jeffrey, Monreal and Baldwin for their contributions to this article.
Photo below: Courtesy of Mimi Pickering and Appalshop
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