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40 years ago: Buffalo Creek Disaster

Kenny Kemp
Buffalo Creek Memorial organizer Billy Jack Dickerson on Saturday reads the names of those who died in the 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster, including Jesse Gunnells, age 1.
Kenny Kemp Audience members listen to Dickerson talk about the Buffalo Creek disaster during a slideshow presentation Saturday at Man High School.
Kenny Kemp Billy Jack Dickerson addresses the audience during a slideshow presentation about the Buffalo Creek disaster, which happened 40 years ago Sunday.
Kenny Kemp Barbara Brunty speaks about her memories of the Buffalo Creek disaster. Brunty, 62, was in her early 20s and living in Lundale when the disaster occurred.
Kenny Kemp Bill Owens lost five family members when the Pittston Coal Co. dam system failed on Feb. 26, 1972.
Lawrence Pierce This dog gets some much-needed sleep after the devastating Feb. 26, 1972, collapse of the Pittston Coal Co. dam system that sent 130 million gallons of water, coal sludge and debris down Logan County's Buffalo Creek Hollow. All told, 125 people were killed, 1,000 more were injured and 4,000 were left homeless.
Lawrence Pierce The remains of houses, businesses and lives lie jammed up against this bridge across Buffalo Creek after the water has receded in February 1972.

MAN, W.Va. -- Forty years have passed, but Bill Owens remembers the day a wall of water and debris swept away his town, killing five of his family members.

Owens was a teenager on Feb. 26, 1972, when the Pittston Coal Co.'s dam system failed, sending 130 million gallons of water, sludge and debris through Buffalo Creek Hollow in Logan County.

All told, 125 people were killed, 1,000 more were injured and 4,000 were left homeless.

On Saturday, Owens and other survivors gathered at Man High School to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the disaster.

Owens, now 54, recalls the morning his family awoke to the sound of rushing water, the force of which pushed their house into another, nearby. They moved upstairs to avoid the water but eventually the current broke the house into pieces, leaving Owens and his family in the water, fighting to get air.

"The last thing I remember, I remember seeing my sister [in the water]," Owens said. "The debris had injured her."

That sister, Anita -- along with another of Owens' sisters, two nephews and a sister-in-law -- was killed.

Forty years later, the memories still cause Owens pain. "This is the first [memorial] that I've been to," he said. "That's how hard it is for me."

Saturday's event, hosted by the Buffalo Creek Memorial Library, featured a slideshow presentation of before-and-after pictures of the disaster, as well as a reading of the names of those who perished in the flood.

The memorial is meant not to open old wounds but to remember loved ones who were lost, organizer Billy Jack Dickerson said.

"These people are not a list of names in a book," Dickerson said. "They're not names in some story. They are friends. They are loved ones. They are neighbors and classmates. That's who they are."

Dickerson, a science teacher at Man High School, has been collecting photos and information about the disaster for around seven years.

The Lundale native was 10 years old when the disaster struck. He said he started the project to make sure younger generation know the history of the disaster.

"I was just afraid that the next generation was [not going to hear the story]," he said. "That was what sat me straight up in the bed at night."

So far, Dickerson and the library have collected photographs of 30 people lost in the disaster. Finding pictures of the victims has been the most difficult part, he said.

Barbara Brunty was in her early 20s and the mother of a 3-year-old at the time of the flood. When the water came, she and other neighbors in her Lundale neighborhood headed for higher ground on a nearby hill. Her husband and another man rescued a family from their house that the water was moving.

Brunty, now 62, said the disaster changed Buffalo Creek in more ways than one.

"Our communities were so close," Brunty said. "We lost that with the flood. It's just so different. We don't know our neighbors. We lost that, and this [memorial] brings us back together.

"I was very fortunate that I did not lose my family. Very fortunate."

To contribute photographs or information to Dickerson's project, contact him at bdickers@access.k12.wv.us or the library director, Elizabeth Tackett, at Etackett7@gmail.com.

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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