Families cannot forget the day when their worlds were turned upside down.
LAWRENCE PIERCE file photo/Sunday Gazette-Mail
Orphaned by the wall of water, a dog dozes on the blackened plain that just days before held the town of Lundale. Fifty-four townspeople died.
By Jack McCarthy
CYCLONE - Memories roil just below the surface. Though a quarter- century has passed, talk of the Buffalo Creek disaster instantly brings Barbara, Brenda and June Elkins to tears.
"I remember it as plain as day," Barbara begins, settling into an overstuffed couch in her modest mobile home along Huff Creek in Wyoming County.
In a flash, all three sisters are again the little girls they were on the morning of Feb. 26, 1972, the morning Pittston Coal Co.'s dam system failed ... the morning a wall of water, sludge and debris took away their mother.
"We were all in the bed," Barbara says. "My mommy was in the kitchen fixing breakfast. And we all got up to watch cartoons."
"We got a call from our grandmother," says Brenda, helping her sister recount the story. "She said the dam was busted."
(From left) Brenda, June and Barbara Elkins were young girls when the Pittston Coal Co.'s dam burst and swept their mother away. Talking about the tragedy still brings the sisters to tears.
Water and coal refuse, 30 feet high and 550 feet across, burst through its hillside location after two days of rain, cascading more than 15 miles down Buffalo Creek in Logan County. Moving at 5 miles per hour, the water took about three hours to wash out a succession of small coal towns and reach the confluence of Buffalo Creek and the Guyandotte River at Man.
The disaster killed 125 people, injured 1,000, and left 4,000 homeless. Five hundred and seven houses were lost or demolished 44 mobile homes were destroyed another 273 houses were severely damaged, while nearly 663 houses suffered damage to varying degrees. In addition, 30 businesses, 1,000 vehicles, 10 bridges, and power, water and telephone lines were destroyed, and the county road and the rail lines servicing the valley's coal mines were severely damaged.
The flood also left an indelible scar on the survivors. In many ways, it damaged all West Virginians.
The state faced yet another man-made disaster, once again in the coalfields. Pittston's New York public relations office only inflamed passions when it issued a news release that said the flood was "an act of God."
The news release attempted to absolve the company from legal responsibility. But for many, it simply reinforced doubts about the ability of government and industry to guard the public good.
"Looking back through history, it's frightening to see that it takes a tragedy for people to do what they are supposed to do," said Secretary of State Ken Hechler, then a congressman.
The dam was made of the unused parts of coal left over after it is washed, creating a simple filtering mechanism for the dirty water. The theory was that the water would seep through the dam at a slow rate, leaving behind the dirty coal refuse.
Prior to the flood, Hechler toured Buffalo Creek and warned of the dangers of coal dams. A similar flood had occurred in Wales and reports of it had circulated throughout the United States. Court cases later showed that company and state agencies were aware of the reports.
Hechler cited the 1914 "Triangle Shirt Waist Fire" in New York City that led to better working conditions in the garment industry, and the Farmington disaster of 1968 in West Virginia that killed 75 miners and led to reform of coal mine safety regulations.
"Buffalo Creek was a terrifying shock to both federal and state officials," Hechler said. "But they should have been shocked earlier."
Trying to escape
"As soon as grandmother called, daddy hung up and he went out to start the car so we could get out," says Barbara, continuing the Elkins sisters' story. "But the water had already picked up the car and took it off, so we ran back in the house."
At the time of the disaster, Barbara was 7 years old, Brenda was 6 and June was 4.
There was ample proof that company and state officials should have known about the problems with the Pittston's coal-refuse dam and dams all over the state.
A federal Bureau of Mines report following the flood said, "The dams were not designed or engineered on the basis of a thorough knowledge of the engineering properties of coal processing refuse."
Furthermore, such precarious dams were supposed to be inspected every two weeks. They were not.
Pittston employees refused to warn authorities that the water behind the dam was rising and, minutes before the water rushed forth, told Logan County deputies everything was under control.
The search for an accounting of the disaster went on for years.
In 1974, the Washington law firm Arnold & Porter won a $13.5 million settlement, less attorney fees, from Pittston for about 600 survivors. Four years later, another 1,200 survivors, including many children, won another $4.88 million. The payoff was about $2,700 per person. The company's insurance paid most of the settlement.
The suits gave rise to a new legal concept. The survivors suffered from a psychological impairment, or "Buffalo Creek Syndrome," as defined by Sociologist Dr. Kay Erikson, chairman of Yale University's American Studies Department.
Survivors were split up from family members. Many were relocated - some in Logan County, others in Huff Creek in Wyoming County where Brenda Elkins now lives. For a year, the sisters were separated to live among different relatives.
Houses float by
Because he lived up on a hill overlooking Buffalo Creek, the Rev. Clarence Campbell watched from his front porch as houses floated down the hollow and crashed into a small bridge.
Campbell, now 72, said he walked up the hollow after the water receded, helping the wounded and identifying the dead. He officiated at four funerals and attended as many as he could.
"I usually tried to give a sermon of comfort and relief," Campbell said. "I took care of two little girls laid in the same casket."
Had members of his family died, he said he wasn't sure how well he would have coped.
"Sometimes, I think I know enough about Scripture to be able to take it, but I don't know," he said.
A citizen's commission investigated the disaster, held hearings and issued a searing report.
"Officials of the Buffalo Creek-Pittston Company are guilty of murdering at least 124 men, women and children living in the Buffalo Creek Hollow," it said.
The report said the dam had failed before. The company and state officials were informed of problems with the refuse dams and had done nothing.
Gov. Arch Moore appointed his own commission, and it issued a surprisingly tough report of its own. "The dam failure was solely the cause of the Buffalo Creek flood," the report said. "No evidence of an Act of God was found by the commission."
And in one of the most dismaying aspects of the entire tragedy, Moore settled the state's lawsuit against Pittston just three days before he left office in 1977. The Legislature had ordered then-Attorney General Chauncey Browning to sue Pittston.
However, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had billed the state for $3.7 million for repairs for its roads, bridges and other costs. The state ignored the bill until it was forced to pay in 1982. By then, interest had ballooned the bill to $9.5 million.
The chairman of the Citizens' Commission, Norman Williams, was fired by the Benedum Foundation from the environmental project the foundation was funding.
"The aftermath for me was I left the state," he said.
Williams, who was later hired by Hechler, said the disaster made safety a more important issue.
"It certainly increased peoples' awareness of the absence of environmental and community safeguards by coal companies, what has been a big problem in West Virginia," he said.
Huntington lawyer John Mcowen, a member of the Citizens' Commission, said the disaster left a lasting mark.
"It made a lot of people realize that the state's infrastructure was perilously inept," Mcowen said. "It was a very, very emotional time for people to think a disaster like that could occur over what was a very correctable thing. The pond held by the dam just needed to be inspected."
Of the state's million-dollar settlement with Pittston, he said, "We're talking about a lot of sins there."
Dr. Ron Lewis, a West Virginia University history professor, said Buffalo Creek weakened faith in public life.
"It only confirmed to ordinary people that big government and big business go together and it's the little people that get squashed," Lewis said.
In the end, reforms were enacted.
Both state and federal mine safety agencies passed laws that improved conditions above ground in the coalfields.
Lewis says that if new laws are passed and new enforcement efforts are underway, it's only because of pressure brought by the public.
"In the 1880s, they had laws governing the environment too," Lewis said. "If we are better off now than we were a few years ago, it's only because people are more conscious and aware. People have been burned a few times and they are wary."
Losing a mother
"We ran to the back door, but the water was already on the front steps," Barbara Elkins remembers. "Dad tried to get us up to the loft. He tried to get mommy up there but he couldn't. He was putting her up there, and then the house just came down like toothpicks.
"We all just started drifting with the water," she says. "We were all hanging onto Daddy, and this big old car came and hit Daddy in the side and knocked Mommy loose from him. And I was hanging onto her. Me and Mom got separated.
"Daddy had those two," Barbara said, pointing to her sisters. "He found a little bank and put them on it. The last time we saw Mommy, she was going down the river hollering for help."
The Elkins sisters each married and had children of their own. They believe they did more than just survive.
They said they received $2,700 each from the settlements, less money spent on school clothes and supplies when they turned 18 years old.
"We lost our mother, our aunts, our cousins, and our home," June said.
"We had on our pjs. That's all we had," Barbara said.
"We turned out pretty good, considering what we went through, going without our mother," Barbara said. "She was taken away from us at such an early age. We were our own mother."