BUFFALO CREEK, W.Va. — The Buffalo Creek Disaster is an event which permanently marked Logan County, West Virginia and the nation.
Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017 marks the 45th year since the No. 3 impoundment dam at the head of Buffalo Creek gave way releasing a 30 foot wall of slurry which would destroy 16 communities along Buffalo Creek killing 125 people and leaving around 4,000 homeless.
Dam No. 3, which was operated by Pittston Mining Company, was given a satisfactory rating by federal inspectors Feb. 22, 1972 — just four days before it ultimately failed.
The three dams at the head of Buffalo Creek were used for impeding drainage where coal slurry-laden water was put in dam No. 3 where the particulate would settle out of the water before it moved to dam No. 2 where more particulate would settle out before it moved on to dam No. 1.
The water from dam No. 1 would ultimately flow into Buffalo Creek.
The three impeding drainage dams at Buffalo Creek had a checkered safety history.
In 1967, dam No. 1 failed causing a stream explosion which damaged the Saunders area directly below the dam.
After the failure of dam No. 1, it was repaired and dam No. 2 was constructed.
By 1970, dam No. 3 was completed, and in February 1971, dam No. 3 partially collapsed but the lower two dams stopped the flood in that situation.
Following the partial slide, the coal company filled the gap in dam No. 3 by adding more coal refuse.
In a report from April 1971, an inspector for the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources recommended adding an emergency spillway to dam No. 3.
Another WVDNR report from August 1971 also recommended an emergency spillway be installed on dam No. 3.
A timeline of the Buffalo Creek Disaster offered by West Virginia University’s Law School explains Pittston Coal promised to build an emergency spill way on dam No. 3 in October 1971.
In December 1971, a third report from the WVDNR recommended an emergency spillway on dam No. 3.
Dam No. 3 was given a satisfactory rating by federal inspectors Feb. 22, 1972.
By 1:30 a.m. Feb. 26, 1972, days of extremely heavy rain filled dam No. 3 to only one foot below its crest.
The WVU timeline explains an official with the coal company stopped efforts to warn citizens reassuring police the dam would hold.
When dam No. 3 failed a few minutes after 8 a.m. Feb. 26, 1972, its water overwhelmed the next two dams causing complete failure of the system which unleashed more than $132 million gallons of coal slurry and water onto the communities below.
For those living in the coalfields at the time, the Buffalo Creek Disaster is described as being as affecting as other world changing events like the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Challenger explosion and 9/11.
Many describe remembering the exact circumstances of the moment in which they learned about the wall of mine slurry wiping out whole communities and killing scores.
Some people living in Logan area at the time report they knew something had happened that day because the Guyandotte River, which was already swollen by days of torrential rain, had a black strip of slurry water running downstream accompanied by pieces of buildings and even vehicles.
Many people report they recall hearing Bill Becker from WVOW declare on the radio he had seen a body floating down the Guyandotte.
Survivors along Buffalo Creek saw cars, homes, neighbors and loved ones washed away in the 30 foot wall of black slurry.
Survivors have described hearing the roar of the wall of coal slurry moving down Buffalo Creek and seeing the water wash away homes like match boxes.
For those who do not have first hand memories of the disaster’s merciless wave of destruction, its scope is simply unfathomable.
The wall of coal slurry and water reportedly receded almost as quickly as it had came leaving behind devastated land where communities like Saunders, Pardee, Lorado, Craneco and Lundale had once supported thousands of people.
The immediate aftermath of the disaster saw the people of Buffalo Creek scrambling to locate their loved ones.
Some would search for days before being reunited with family members, but others would ultimately be left with only memories of loved ones who had died in the disaster.
Each year survivors, descendants and those wish to honor the memories of the people and communities lost that Saturday in February 1972 gather to recall their stories at the Buffalo Creek Memorial Library.
This year, the group gathered Friday, February 24 at the library where librarian Elizabeth Tackett keeps boxes of photos and mementos rescued from the flood.
In an effort to memorialize the people and communities lost in the Buffalo Creek Disaster, a mural depicting the amazing story of Kerry Albright, known as “The Miracle Baby,” was commissioned in 2014.
Albright was nine months old when the disaster killed his mother and teenage brother.
In an attempt to save his life, Albright’s mother is said to have tossed him to higher ground before being swept away.
Albright was later found unresponsive under the sludge with severe injuries.
After the sludge was cleared from his mouth, it is said Albright began to breathe.
A monument has also been constructed at Buffalo Creek in remembrance of those who lost their lives in the disaster.
Forty-five years after the Buffalo Creek Disaster, memories of the tragedy, for some, are still fresh and pain still lives beneath the surface of normalcy slowly laid down by time and faith.
Owen Wells is a reporter for Civitas Media. He can be reached at 304-752-6950 or by email at [email protected]