Gazette photo by LAWRENCE PIERCE
Carol Hoosier escaped from the raging waters at Buffalo Creek 25 years ago today. Her parents did not, leaving the 52-year-old with a guilt that has taken many years to work out.
At first, Carol Hoosier said she did not want to discuss the Buffalo Creek disaster and what it did to her family.
But then the words poured out. With her eyes wide and with tears rolling down her cheeks, she recalled every second of the flood.
Hoosier, 52, still lives on Buffalo Creek, and she owns a grocery store at Robinette, a few miles down the hollow from where the Pittston Coal Co. dam broke in 1972. She also works for the Logan County Sheriff's Department. As she told her story recently to Gazette reporter Jack McCarthy, she had to stop frequently to try to regain her composure.
"IT'S SOMETHING you don't forget, and it took a lot of years to learn to live with.
"We woke up early that day. ... I heard someone tell my husband Ronnie he thought the dam was going to break. My parents lived next door, so I left and went over there because they were still in bed. I remember my dad got a little mad with me. He liked to sleep late on Saturday.
"My mother and I went to the kitchen, and when we got outside, the water was in the road. There was nothing but boards and water. I thought what we were looking at was debris from the road, but it was the house that was breaking up.
"By the time I came out with my mother, my husband was there and he said to get in the car, now! My mother pulled loose from me and went into the house for dad. I started thinking they had time.
"When we got in the car to leave, I saw a 20- or 30-foot wall of water coming around the corner, and then it started spreading out, taking everything in its path. I saw a car going down the creek, floating like a pop bottle, it had that much force.
"We went up to the Amherst mine road - that's the only thing that saved our lives. When we got on the hill and looked back, everything was gone.
"I had a lot of guilt because I thought I left my parents there. I had to see a doctor to cope with their deaths. ... There were a lot of feelings ... People felt guilty because they were alive and others were dead.
"I had never seen the dam. My dad always told us that if that dam breaks, it would wipe Buffalo Creek off the map. Yet the morning I tried to get him up, he said, "This is Saturday, let daddy sleep. Nothing is going to happen."
"Every time it rained, people said the dam is going to break, and nothing ever happened.
"My parents were 47, younger than I am now. My father worked his whole life in the mines, and to think he got killed in bed. ...
"The water was like a bulldozer. My husband found our bathroom door, and that's it. They never did find my father's car, not even a piece of it. They said many people in the water didn't have any clothes on.
"My husband's grandmother lived four houses above mother and dad's and that house stood intact. She was fine.
"I was the oldest of four sisters. My husband and grandfather identified my mother. They didn't find my father for a while. I didn't look at them.
"When there's a lot of rain, that's what's on your mind. The other night there was a lot of rain and I went downstairs. I still can't sleep when it rains.
"It took years to adjust. I had a really hard time. I had a 13-year-old sister at home when mom and dad were killed. She lived with me. I raised her. I was 27. I had two first cousins and an aunt killed.
"There is still a lot of bitterness, not because it could have been avoided, but because they could have got the people out.
"The coal company just waited too long to alert the people. They didn't want people to be frightened, and they didn't want to get sued.
"They had people there all night, but they didn't tell any of us. If they sent people and said, 'We think it's best for you to evacuate' ... but they didn't do that. I'm still bitter about it. You can replace houses, but you can't replace families.
"People were moved to communities with people they didn't know. You live around some people all your life, then, they disappear. People went wild with the money they were getting in settlements, drinking.
"We lived in Green Valley all summer. Then we bought a trailer and moved to land owned by former Logan Sheriff Ralph Grimmett's family. We stayed there until the settlement and moved back.
"Buffalo Creek got shortchanged. People had to relocate. They promised model communities. They put in cuts and sewer systems that were too high. Our water and sewer bills were too high.
"With my mom and dad, we settled with an attorney. Another lawyer took care of me.
"I thought of leaving but my husband works for Amherst. You live where you work. Almost everybody stayed - up Huff Creek in Wyoming County or wherever.
"People talk about it when they come in the store - what they were doing, what it was like.
"Everybody that lived up there - I think it had an effect on them. Even on kids not born yet. It's something you see on television - it couldn't happen to you.
"It's like you got cheated out of part of your life."