To keep memories of the worst disaster ever in southern West Virginia alive, stories and memories were shared on the 41-year anniversary of the devastating Buffalo Creek flood.
For several days before February 26, 1972, there had been rainfall to the point of roads being closed because of high water. But that was mostly in Logan, not along Buffalo Creek where communities including Saunders, Pardee, Lorado, Craneco, Lundale, Stowe, Crites, Latrobe, Robinette, Amherstdale, Becco, Fanco, Braeholm, Accoville, Crown and Kistler.
These communities were below the three dams built by the coal company, an impoundment filled with 132 million gallons of black waste water. Residents below the dam often had fears of the dam breaking, especially since the dam had caused a flood in 1963. That incident was enough to cause people to try, unsuccessfully, to force the coal company to drain the impoundment. It also caused some residents to be wary of the dam every time there was a lot of rain or a danger of flooding.
There were rumblings in the communities the night of February 25, warnings about the danger of the dam breaking. Some residents left that night. Unfortunately, there were some residents who had become complacent about warnings of the dam failing, or they just never believed it would ever happen.
In 1972, there were no cell phones or texting, no computers, Facebook or Topix and telephones were usually on a “party” line several families shared. The warnings on the morning of February 26 were by phone, brought from neighbor to neighbor, by deputies driving through communities, by the Logan radio station WVOW and in one case, by a brave little girl.
At about 8:05 a.m., Saturday, February 26, 1972, the worst fears became reality. The dam came apart and in a matter of minutes, the cold, black water had claimed 125 lives, injured another, 1,100 and left over 4,000 people homeless.
The wall of water came down the narrow valley, bouncing from one side to the other. It ripped through 502 houses, 44 mobile homes and destroyed a thousand cars and trucks. There was damage to another 943 houses and the estimated property damage was over $50 million.
The Buffalo Creek Memorial Library hosted a memorial, which began with a prayer by Robert Perry, who shared a story of a man who was paralyzed from the waist down whose family perished because they would not leave him.
Those present read the names and ages of the 125 family members and friends who perished in the flood. Then, Vinson Willis Jr. recited a poem he wrote, “Black Dawn.”
Willis said, “The ones not involved in the flood; they still had heartbreak that day.”
Several people who were there and witnessed the devastation shared stories of that fateful morning.
Timothy Hall said his father was a deacon at a church right under the dam. School had been called off because of flooding in Logan, so they decided to go to the church and cleaned it top to bottom.
They went back home. He said he asked his father, “Dad, what’s going to happen if this thing breaks?” His dad told him they would go to the highest house up on the hill, the postmaster’s house. We had it all planned out what we would do. Tim said some of their neighbors left because they were scared.
When he woke up that morning, everybody was there, his uncle was there and he had been to the post office and a deputy told him the dam was full and they said it might break. I woke my mom up and she said, “I’ll believe it when it happens.”
His said his sister looked out the window and screamed. Tim went to the window and saw that the creek that had been almost empty was full of black water to the top of the banks and then 10 to 15 feet above it, was white boards. The noise of the water was so great, they couldn’t hear each other, even though they were yelling.
All of the houses above theirs had been destroyed and were roaring by in the water. Tim said grandmother told his mother to get the kids out of there. He said his dad took his time putting his clothes before leaving. Tim said he saw the water coming into their neighbor’s yard and after they had walked about 30 feet, they looked back and the neighbor’s house came off the foundation and slammed into their house. He said he was in shock.
They could hear screaming and power lines sparking all over the place. The family went up over two sets of railroad tracks and then stood and watched.
“The water brought houses, cars and debris down like a train. People were screaming and dying when it went by,” he said, “When it was over, believe it or not, there were people out there with shopping carts trying to find things. Then, I heard a man say he had found a baby in the mud.”
Hall said they lost their communities that day, and their lives from beginning to end were ripped up, ”We had two lives after that day, one before the flood and one after. I spent a lot of my life pining for the things that were instead of appreciate all the good things I had in my life.”
Gertie Moore was the school bus driver before the day of the flood. She knew most of the people in the communities. She knew the cars they drove and had most of their telephone numbers committed to memory. She said everybody in those communities were like family.
“It happened so suddenly, I was in shock for days,” she said.
Moore’s home and family was not affected by the flood, but with the mention of a name, a face comes to her mind and the emotions and feelings of that time come rushing back.
She told of a little girl who had started kindergarten that school year, “Darla’s mother had given her flowers after she had gotten new ones. I can remember her reaching those flowers up to me. She wanted me to have them.”
Moore’s husband lost 25 family members in the flood. She comes to the memorial every year and does what she can to keep the memory alive and keep the same thing from happening again.
“Our security blanket was taken from us. It took everything away up to that point, the next day we started something new. We had to start looking to God to get us through this. I will never forget until the day they lay me to rest.”
Margaret Gunnells was living with her mother at the time of the flood and they lost their home. They got the warning and she was the one who dragged her feet, “She told me if I didn’t come on, she was going to have to leave me behind.”
Mike Pollard was in the military when he heard Walter Cronkite tell of a flood that had devastated Buffalo Creek in West Virginia. He could not reach his family and got emergency leave to drive his “little beetle bug” home to find his family. He found his family well, but homeless. He said God had blessed his African American community and none were killed in the flood.
Man High School Science teacher Billy Jack Dickerson has also been heavily involved in keeping the memory alive. He has collected thousands of photos, videos and is currently in the process of gathering photos of the ones who died.
Dickerson’s Environmental Science Class put together a presentation of videos of survivors telling their stories.
The daughter of the postmaster at Accoville at the time of the flood told of her mother coming down off the mountain with her mother to save the things in the post office before going back to the mountain and safety.
One man was asked why he didn’t believe the dam would ever break he said, “Because the day before, I was on it.” When asked what he did when it did break, he said, “Run.”
A member of the class who made the presentation captured his mother on video. She was nine years old at the time. Her family lost their home and they lived first in a bathhouse, then the school, and then they brought trailers in for them. The family now lives on the same property they lived on at the time of the flood.
Marie and Leon Cazin were planning on going to Huntington that day, to Marshall University. They had gotten up that morning, but went back to bed. She said she heard a knock at the door.
When her husband went to answer the door, a small, tiny voice said, “They said the dam had broke.” Then she went back and got in a car that was waiting for her. Her husband told their 12-year-old son to back their Tempest out of the garage. When he did, it collapsed.
She saw houses coming down the creek. They got in the car. Her husband got in his truck and followed her out of the hollow. The water was right on her husband’s bumper as they were “driving pretty fast” to get to safety.
“I will never forget the little girl who risked her life door and saved us. Her name was Dreama Bragg, the daughter of Margaret and Valentine Bragg. I think she was about four years old.”
Included was an interview with the “Miracle Baby” whose mother threw him up on the hillside to save his life. Kerry Albright’s story appears in the January issue of Reader’s Digest
Albright was 9 months old when his mother, Sylvia Albright, and 18-year-old brother, Steven Albright, ran from their house after seeing the wall of water roaring down their hollow. His mother tossed Albright to higher ground to save his life. She and her teenage son didn’t survive.
There had been 20 to 30 minutes since the flood passed through. When people looking for survivors found Albright, they first thought he was a doll. They pulled him out and took him to a nurse after they got the mud out of his mouth and he took a breath.
Gertie Moore came to the front of the auditorium and told the students, “Each of us went to bed that night, thinking we would wake up the next morning the same as any other morning. We didn’t have any idea what was in store.”
The presentation ended with a photo essay of flood photos accompanied by a song, “Buffalo Creek 1972,” by Craig Heath.