CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When the heavens opened on the fateful Wednesday evening 50 years ago, people who lived up Magazine Hollow did what they normally do -- they kept an eye on the water pouring down the street.
Some, like young Terry Stone and his family, headed for higher ground. Others decided to wait it out. Their homes had withstood previous floods, after all.
But this was no ordinary storm. The Weather Service called it a cloudburst: On July 19, 1961, 6 inches of rain fell in four hours starting at about 8:30, following six straight rainy days.
As it poured through narrow Magazine Hollow, the runoff carried away anything that wasn't tied down -- and some things that were. Cars, even homes, were no match for the raging waters. Survivors recall watching houses float past under the glare of lightning bolts and hearing the screams of their neighbors.
By daylight, rescuers began to tally the grim aftermath of the storm. Twenty-two people died in the Kanawha Valley, including nine on Garrison Avenue. An estimated 1,500 people were left homeless as 138 houses were destroyed and 1,374 heavily damaged.
Mayor John Shanklin and John L. Sullivan of the Civil Defense agreed it was the worst disaster they had ever seen. "I've never seen so much devastation," Sullivan said, "and I've seen a lot of disaster areas."
While Garrison Avenue was hard hit, other areas suffered as well -- Sugar Creek, Wertz Avenue, Campbells Creek, Chappell and Mission hollows. Elk Two-Mile might have taken the hardest blow, but creeks flooded from Cedar Grove to Nitro.
The National Guard closed off Garrison the next morning and imposed a curfew for weeks afterward to prevent looting. President John Kennedy provided federal disaster relief.
Seeking higher ground
On the night of the flood, Terry Stone, then 11, was at his home at 145 Garrison, just inches away from the street, with his mom, dad, two brothers and others.
"When the flood started that evening, the water came up above the curb," Stone said. "So we moved over to 174 1/2 Garrison to get away." They joined another group in the two-story home of the Spradlings, away from the road and across the creek.
"We were there a while. It was dark. The only thing you could see was when the lightning flashed. You could see cars and houses moving.
"We were beginning to worry the foundation might go," Stone said. So the group took refuge in a former chicken coop about 20 feet up the hill. The Spradlings had cleaned out and stabilized the 14- by 24-foot building just for that purpose.
But even that wasn't enough. "As the storm got worse, the adults decided it was time to go."
Stone was one of the last ones out. "My grandfather and godfather and stepgrandfather were behind me. What no one expected was a mudslide. I grabbed ahold of a pine shrub.
"The next streak of lightning, the building was over the hill." The chicken coop tumbled down and landed upside-down on the roof of a house at the foot of the hill.
"My dad said it was the wake of a water skier. He could see the mud going around both of us boys. We were covered with mud. From that point we just took off. We went up the hill to the Cunninghams, on Cunningham Drive. They took us in and cleaned us up.
"My grandfather Charlie Jones and godfather Alex Voires were killed when the building went over the hill. My stepgrandfather, Aaron Davis, died a few years later from his injuries.
"My dad took us back the next day. This whole area was totally devastated. It looked like the water bounced off the walls of the hollow. It would hit one house, miss another, hit the next one. We lost quite a few families.
"Anything that was in this hollow ended up at the mouth of the hollow. They had a big old bonfire. Anything that was wood they burned. It looked like a war zone for months afterwards."
Memories, a half-century later
Fifty years after the flood, survivors like Stone are getting hard to find. Many moved away, others died.
For nearly 20 years, the Magazine/Garrison Avenue and Area Reunion Group has been trying to find survivors and their relatives. They hold yearly reunions at the Bigley Avenue ball field and meet once a month at Harding's Restaurant.
Norma Levy, 79, one of the founders of the group, lived with her mom at 274 Garrison until she got married at age 28 and moved away in 1960. The couple was camping in Virginia the night of the flood.
"We got word that there was a flood," she said. Heading back, "We heard Johnny Willey on the radio."
Willey, a Garrison Hollow resident, had spent the night with a friend, going from house to house, rescuing people. In one home, they found a baby all alone, floating on a mattress. He heard a radio station wanted to talk to witnesses and called up the studio. He later learned he had been on the air, live.
"It was horrible," Levy said. "He was giving out names and everything on the radio, scaring everyone half to death."
Once she got past the National Guard, "I saw my mother out in front of the house. My husband went to check on his mother. Their house was gone. I can see it. After all these years, I still get emotional.