40th Anniversary of the Buffalo Creek Disaster
MARTHA SPARKS, Society Editor
One of the countrys worst mining-related disasters occurred 40 years ago today along Buffalo Creek in Logan County. At approximately 8 a.m., February 26, 1972, a coal waste dam collapsed on the Middle Fork of Buffalo Creek, releasing 132 million gallons of water, coal refuse and silt into the narrow mountain valley. Within minutes, the black wave plowed downstream into two other coal waste dams and a burning coal refuse pile. In the following hours, rampaging water demolished or partially destroyed the 17 communities downstream. Saunders was hit first, followed by Pardee, Lorado, Craneco, Lundale, Stowe, Crites, Latrobe, Robinette, Amherstdale, Becco, Fanco, Riley, Braeholm, Accoville, Crown, and Kistler.
In the end, 125 people, including entire families, were killed; 1,000 people were injured; 507 houses and 44 mobile homes were destroyed, 273 houses were severely damaged, and 663 houses were partially damaged; and 4,000 of the 5,000 residents of Buffalo Creek were left homeless. Residents of the closely knit coal towns were dispersed. Some eventually rebuilt, but others never returned. Some communities vanished.
Buffalo Mining Company, a division of the Pittston Company, owned and operated the three coal waste dams. The dams were constructed to hold coal waste and water from the companys coal preparation plant on Buffalo Creek, about one-half mile north of Saunders.
At the time, the state Public Service Commission was responsible for overseeing impoundments that blocked streams. A state investigation found that neither Pittston nor the previous owner that had built a dam on Middle Fork had submitted dam construction plans to the PSC for approval. For years, Buffalo Creek residents had been concerned about whether the dams posed a danger to them. Surveys and inspections by officials from the U.S. Geological Survey and the state Department of Natural Resources had concluded that the dams might be susceptible to washouts.
After the flood, state and federal investigations found that the flood was caused by improper construction of the coal waste dams. The Governors Ad Hoc Commission of Inquiry found that The Pittston Company, through its officials, has shown flagrant disregard for the safety of residents of Buffalo Creek and other persons who live near coal-refuse impoundments. Pittston officials blamed the flood on the 3.7 inches of rain that fell in the three days before February 26, and called the disaster an act of God.
After the flood, 645 survivors and family members of flood victims filed suit against Pittston. In 1974, the suit was settled for $13.5 million, an average of $13,000 for each plaintiff after legal fees. The state of West Virginia also filed suit against Pittston, asking for $100 million to compensate it for damage to state property and losses to residents. In 1977, Governor Arch Moore accepted a $1 million settlement in the suit. In 1988, after years of legal procedures, the state was forced to reimburse $9.5 million to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for flood recovery work.
The Buffalo Creek Flood prompted Congress and the West Virginia legislature to pass new laws regulating dam construction and maintenance.
Below is a listing of those who lost their lives: Brookie Mae Adkins, age 31; Lonnie Lee Adkins, age 7 months; Mary Jane Adkins, age 5; David Brooks Adkins, age 27; David Adkins Jr., age 4; Sylvia Albright, age 39; Steven Albright, age 17; Janice Juanita Osborne Bailey, age 32; Kimberly Kay Bailey, age 6; Jason Bailey Jr., age 11; Rhoda Rene Bailey, age 8; Carla Jeannene Bailey, age 1-1/2; James Bailey Jr., age 16; John H. Bailey, age 58; Eleanor Bailey, age 44; April Ellen White, age 11
Milton Baker, age 71; Effie Baker, age 68; Mrs. Joyce Bartram, age 40; Betty Lee Black, age 51; Edith Blankenship, age 61; Rebecca Broady, age 15; Donna Sue Lauderback Browning, age 21; Norman Bruce Browning, age 3; James Brunty, age 82; Leonard Butcher, age 66; Dessie Butcher, age 57; Ballard Carter, age 36; Janice Hatfield Carter, age 29; Matthew Carter, age 6; Lillian Sara Carter, age 3; Margaret Levanna Davis, age 35; Mary Jane Davis, age 8; Willie Dempsey, age 42; Aletha V. Dempsey, age 38
Berma Jo Dickerson, age 20; Steven Todd Dickerson, age18; Anita Smith, age 17
James Dillon, age 3; Thelma Dillon, age 36; Curtis Dillon, age 10; Sharon Dillon, age 13
Daria Dillon, age 5; Howard Dillon, age 8; Ruth Ann Elkins, age 29; Judy Ferguson, age 27; Connie Sue Ferguson, age 18; Martha Elkins Gunnells, age 21; David Gunnells, age 3
Jessie Gunnells, age l; Etta Pearl Hatfield, age 60; Layton Oscar Hatfield, age 50; Ruth Broady Hatfield, age 53; Steven Hatfield, age 16; Rebecca Broady, age 15; Albert O. Hedinger, age 34; Angela Jean Hopson, age 2; Margaret Yanco Jarrell, age 42; Karen Jarrell, age 16; Patrick Jarrell, age 24; William Lee Jarrell, age 50; Lottie May Jarrell, age 45
Andrew Johnston, age 73; Mrs. Grace Kennedy, age 71; Gary Mike King, age 24; Norman Lester, age 24; Sharon Ann Lester, age 25; Denise Lester, age 3; Dennatta Lester, age 5 to 7; Opal Lester, age 45; Barry Keith Lester, age 15; Rita Joann Lester, age 16; Mary Bowman Marcum, age 44; Diana Lynn McCoy, age 18; Kimberly McCoy, age 3; Jesse Messer, age 35; Augusta Miller, age 69; Robert Murray, age 71; Wandell Osborne, age 37; Jeannette Osborne, age 35; Regina Osborne, age 12; Carolyn Osborne, age 20 months; Geneva Osborne, age 11; Wandell Osborne Jr., age 15; Henrietta Owens, age 22; Thomas Owens, age 3
Herbert Peters, age 71; Martha Peters, age 71; Callis Perry, age 81; Margie Marie Prince, age 42; Macie Queen, age 54; Otis Ramey, age 49; Mattie Ramey, age 45; Virgie Albright Ramey; Mrs. Marvel Rosie Scarberry, age 73; Goldie Sipple, age about 38
Anita Smith, age about 17; Florencio Sosa, age 65; Magdalene Sosa, age 46; Gladys Staton, age 25; Kevin Staton, age 1; Delia Trent, age 69; Johnny Trent, age 32; Gene Trent, age 26; Henry Trent, age 49; Wanda Trent, age 39; Betty Frances Vernatter, age 4 years; Thomas Vernatter, age 65; Ethel Black Vernatter, age 65; Roby Leslie Waugh, age 45; James Lewis Waugh, age 11; Grady Michael Waugh, age 18; Donald Waugh, age 20; Larry Keith Waugh, age 5; April Ellen White, age 11; Mrs. Dora Wiley, age 60; Richard Dick Wiley, age 78; Frank Lee Workman, age 69
Those listed as missing, but whose bodies were never found or identified were: Dorinda Adkins, age 3 months; Samuel Carter, age 20 months; Roscoe Clay, age 74; James Nevada Davis, age 2; Nancy Hopson, age 1; Donald McCoy Jr., age 1-1/2; Kathy Waugh, age 8 months
There were three bodies, two white males, ages 18 months to three years, and one white female, age approximately three years, that were unable to be identified.
Information from www.wvencyclopedia.org and www.wvculture.org was used in preparing this article.
Martha Sparks can be contacted at 304-752-6950, ext. 308 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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