Mud, muck and misery

On Feb. 26, 1972 memories of death, destruction, mud, muck and misery on Buffalo Creek were seared into my brain when a wall of black water kiled 125 people and left 4,000 more homeless.

Monday marks the 46th anniversary.

It was the first big disaster I covered when I worked at The Logan Banner. My photos were used in Death on Buffalo Creek by Tom Nugent and in newspapers across the U.S.

I've seldom recounted the experience of being there within hours of the time the wall of water rushed down the valley. I reported what I saw, but not what I experienced because it would make me part of the story.

Flooding waters were rising along the Guyandotte River. By early morning I was already out with the local National Guard unit because Banner publisher Tom George was commander of the unit. We ventured by C&O locomotive to Mud Fork to investigate a report that an old mine filled with water was about to flood Verdunville. It was a false alarm.

The came the radio reports that a wall of water swept down Buffalo Creek destroying everything in its path. The guard first tried to use a C&O locomotive to get to Man, W.Va., but water from the Guyandotte blocked the railroad.

Instead we took a convoy of National guard trucks through high water around Stollings and along Dingess Run and over Blair Mountain to Blair. At Blair the convoy turned up a road that took us over Kelly Mountain and down Proctor Hollow to Amherstdale. We arrived about noon.

People were standing on a walk way in front of an Island Creek Coal Company store. Most were in shock. Looking up the hollow to Robinette, the valley was choked with wreckage of houses. It was no different looking downstream.

The road along Buffalo Creek had been ground away by raging torrents of water. The road that remained was blocked by dozens and dozens of wrecked homes piled on top of one another, some at crazy angles. A highway bridge at Stowe was useless. The highway at either end of the bridge was gone. There was no way to get to the bridge, over it, or the other side.

The convoy of National Guard 2-1/2 ton trucks inched ahead. By nightfall we reached Stowe. Coal miners in an emergency don't wait to be told what to do. Several bulldozer operators went to jobsites and took heavy equipment. Deep into the night they worked to build a makeshift road so rescuers could get through at daybreak.

Trooper Roy Wilfong of the West Virginia State Police was with us. It was critical for the National Guard to maintain radio contact with the state police. The road was too rough for the police cruiser, so they chained it behind the convoy and dragged it across the make shift road.

At the washed out Stowe bridge we waited as the bulldozers built a makeshift bridge across the creek. We were standing around waiting at 2 a.m. when the National Guard radio crackled to life with a warning that another dam at the head of Buffalo Creek had collapsed.

Guardsman Gary Tooley laid on the horning of his dues-and-a-half guard truck and blasted it three times. "High ground, high ground, high ground," he shouted. No explanation was needed. We ran up the nearest hillside and waited.

George, Wilfong and I stood in the cold and waited. I expected to hear the onslaught of another wall of water. It never came. Later we learned it was a ruse by burglars trying to blow the safe at the Lorado company store.

We realized we were standing close to a house high on Stowe Hill. Tom George knocked on the door and asked if we could come in to warm up. the woman at the door said there were 40 people taking refuge in her home. She sent us to the basement. We spent the remainder of the night catnapping on a bench in front of a coal fire furnace.

At daybreak we split up. I headed up the hollow to get to the cause of the flood, a coal slag dam built by Pittston Coal near Saunders. It was a long walk with no road. During the treck I passed several bodies, victim of the flood. Each one had a morgue tag with Wilfong's signature, date and time.

By midmorning I made it to Lorado. I ran into Trooper J.D. Lefler tagging another body. By then helicopters were flying in and out of the wreckage at Lorado. Enterprising chopper pilots were charging people $100 a head to get out of the ravaged hollow. He convinced a pilot to fly me to Saunders so I could get photos of the collapsed dam.

The pilot was low on fuel and we headed for Man High School landing in the school parking lot. By Sunday morning the National Guard began ferrying people to a makeshift shelter in the school.

I sat in the parking lot briefly with Jerry Godby of WLOG radio and Marty Backus of WVOW. We agrred that it looked like a battle zone. The constant whine of jets from the National Guard Hueys only added to it. Bone tired from being up most of Saturday night and early Sunday. I catnapped at the edge of the parking lot. Half a sleep I felt somebody kicking my feet. It was my editor Charlie Hylton.

"Where in the hell have you been. I've been trying to find you since yesterday." he said.

I jerked my thumb over my shoulder pointing up Buffalo Creek. "I've been up Buffalo Creek with the National Guard," I said practically shouting because of the National Guard choppers landing. "I have photos of the dam." Once I explained, the reprimand I was half expecting never came. His jaw dropped. Was he surprised that I would be drawn to a disaster like a moth to a flame? Hyltom was not my favorite editor. In fairness I was not his favorie reporter.

A short time later fellow Banner reporter Earl Lambert found me. He tossed a brown grocery bag with a much needed change of clothes. I was covered with mud.

I changed clothes and headed the 15 miles back to Logan with a National Guard truck. At the Banner I headed for the darkroom and processed a dozen rolls of film.

The next few months turned into a grueling schedule. Earl headed for Buffalo Creek and returned late in theday. Then it was my turn to return. The next day Larry Lodato took his turn. That went on for months.

The flood is an example of what happens when coal mine waste is dumped in a stream.

The Pittston Co. dammed one of the forks of Buffalo Creek with coal slag. The dam did not hold water until Pittston started processing strip mined coal through its tipple. The sludge from the coal tipple enabled the dam to hold water.

Let me be blunt. Dumping coal waste in a stream killed 125 people. That was long before the EPA existed. The feds just abolished rules halting the dumping of coal waste. President Trump had the mistaken idea that abolishing the rules would restore 70,000 jobs.