National Guard officers helped locate the dead along Buffalo Creek, then worked to dig graves in the frozen ground. Here, two family members are laid to rest in the same grave shortly after the Feb. 26, 1972, disaster.
Nelson Sorah saw Buffalo Creek through the eyes of both a reporter and a National Guard officer.
A Charleston Gazette reporter at the time of the flood, he was part of the first reporting team that made its way into the hollow following the disaster. No sooner had he finished filing the first eyewitness accounts of the disaster than he was called to active duty. He spent the next eight days on a body recovery detail.
Now a public relations consultant and community activist, Sorah shared his observations about the 25-year-old tragedy during an interview with Gazette reporter Rick Steelhammer.
"It was the weirdest thing, honestly. I wasn't supposed to work that day. It was Saturday and someone was sick and I was working overtime. It had been raining for several days, and we had minor flooding around Charleston. We got a call somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 or 2 o'clock. They said a small dam - a cofferdam was what they were calling it - had broke at Buffalo Creek. Nobody knew where Buffalo Creek was, but we finally found out it was in Logan County."
(A cofferdam is a watertight temporary structure in a lake, river, etc., for keeping the water from an enclosed area that has been pumped dry so that a bridge foundation, dam or pier may be constructed.)
"Then, as the day progressed we were getting reports of flooding all across Southern West Virginia, and got word that 18 people had died at Buffalo Creek. That's a lot of people. Eight's a lot, but 18 ... all because a cofferdam had broken? We decided to go down there.
"But we couldn't get there. The conventional way was to go down U.S. 119 to Stollings and turn left at Man, but you couldn't get in that way. I knew the back way in, since I'm from the coalfields in that part of the state, so we went down through Pineville.
"We left here about 7 o'clock - me, reporter George Steele and photographer Larry Pierce. After we got down in Wyoming County, just before we got to the Logan County border, we passed this church and there was a whole bunch of people there along with a State Police cruiser. A great big deuce-and-a-half Army truck was coming off the hill and turning onto the road just as we got there. It was carrying the first survivors coming off Buffalo Creek.
"They were the very first people out of there, some 12 hours after it happened. So we screeched to a halt. I knew the trooper and I started talking to him and he said it was really bad, you were going to find a whole bunch of people dead. I wasn't prepared to understand what he meant by a whole bunch. But we zipped in there and started talking to people and interviewing them. They told us it was absolutely horrible ... that they had to run up the mountainside to get away from the water. We were thinking cofferdam. We just weren't prepared for what they were trying to explain.
"People will still ask 'How was it?' and one way to try to describe it is to think of a tornado and the total destruction it leaves. You had exactly the same thing on Buffalo Creek.
"We went on down to Man and the Appalachian Regional Hospital and found that the National Guard had set up headquarters at the junior high school and we went over there. Of course, I was in the National Guard at the time and I knew all the people in it who were there, and they were telling us that the destruction was absolutely mind-boggling.
"We spent the night in the makeshift morgue in the junior high gym. More bodies, more survivors were coming in all night. We didn't sleep. People were quietly going about their business, stacking bodies on tables and cleaning the mud and coal dirt off them. Otherwise, the silence was so deep you could hear a flea sneeze. One family had a birthday that day, and they'd been shopping and were preparing for a party and this flood hits them, and that night, they're being lined up in a morgue. It makes you say, 'My God, there but for the grace of God go I. ' "
"We still weren't prepared for what we would see the next day.
"We got out the next morning and started out from the mouth of the hollow. It was cordoned off. State Police were there and you couldn't go up there. So we just went back, parked the car, got all of our gear and took off walking up the railroad track. We were the first reporters at Buffalo Creek.
"The lower end of Buffalo Creek wasn't all that bad for the first mile ... then I guess about two miles into it, the destruction and amount of debris picked up. Then the roadway was washed out. We came upon a railroad trestle that had been lifted up and moved downstream, and the railroad rails themselves were bent around trees in an incredible show of destruction. Everybody was sort of drifting around with a dazed sort of look.
"Officials had no way of planning for what happened. The Guard units in that part of the state were armored cavalry, not transportation people, so they were kind of unprepared for the kind of work they'd be doing after that kind of destruction. It was a slow process that didn't really get going until we left there and let the world know about it.
"So we're finally up there, walking up the creek, taking pictures, talking to people and marveling at the destruction. I guess about four or five miles into the hollow we came to Amherstdale and saw the first really big pile of debris and all the splinte red houses and shops and cars and structures of all kinds that had broken apart into boards and were all stacked together in a manner that was very much like toothpicks against this railroad trestle. It was enormous. Scores of houses and everything you c an imagine being in a community was in there and stacked right against this railroad trestle.
"We stopped and stood there for the longest time and tried to imagine what had happened. We were kind of lost in our thoughts and didn't speak to each other much. We just looked at it and tried to imagine how many houses does it take to make that kind of pile. It was two, two-and-a-half stories tall, and it was 40 or 50 yards deep. But it was pressed together so tight you literally could not pull a board out of it. It was something that should have signaled to us 'You've got something on your hands that 's never happened before.'
"I don't know if we really understood that, then. We knew it was unusual and we knew that something awful had happened but I'm not sure we had accepted that we were watching something that had never happened before in West Virginia. So we just continued up the hollow.
"Everybody was trying their hardest to find people. We walked the longest way up the hollow with this preacher we came upon who obviously was looking for his flock and looking for people he knew. But in this chaotic situation, he just couldn't find anybody. He had that numb, dazed look - that thousand-yard stare that everybody talks about - that says 'My God! What's happened here? I have to find somebody.'
"He walked up the hollow and past his church and he would point to a house that used to be across the river and say 'Mr. Jones and his family used to live here.' The new position of the house caused him to wonder what's taken place, wonder where these people are. Here he is, having lived there, at a total loss to explain where these people were and what happened to them.
"It was just a crazy kind of situation. It's disorienting, like constantly spinning around and continually trying to keep your balance. Nothing made sense. We knew we had to come back and write some type of comprehensive story that would let somebody comprehend the total destruction, but all this time, your mind's just spinning. How can I really transfer what I'm seeing to everybody else? That was constantly on my mind.
"We walked all the way up to No. 1 Lundale, then No. 2, and had yet to see a body. We had talked to several people who had escaped the water and almost everybody I talked to described it as a 20-foot wall of water.
"Lundale was about halfway up the hollow, and by this point it was almost total destruction. The hollows are so steep there's only room for a road, a railroad track, a street and a row of houses. At Lundale it widened out a little and there were a couple, three rows of houses, or used to be. At this point everything was uprooted - trees, houses, garages, cars - everything in its path had been turned around, turned over or demolished. It was there we saw our first body.
"We were walking up there, about 8 o'clock in the morning and it wasn't really cold. The people in the morgue told us we weren't going to believe what we'd be seeing and they were right. How can you describe what's indescribable? We looked over at this tree - a small tree, probably 4 inches in diameter - and a body was up in it with his arm across his face like he was trying to shield it. It was a man, a boy actually, 18 or 19. I saw a big gash on the side of his head, but other than that he looked OK, as far as dead people look OK. He was up in a limb, maybe 18, 20 feet off the ground.
"We went probably another hundred yards and saw our second body - an older man lying in the creek, or where the creek had been, and there was a dog with him, lying beside the body. The dog was very much alive, and kept within 2 or 3 feet of him. I'm sure the dog was protecting the person. I assume it was the guy's dog. Those were the only two bodies we saw that day ....
"We went on up the hollow, and after Lundale, there was nothing. There was no electricity, no infrastructure left at all. But it was all familiar to me. Having grown up in a coal camp myself, I knew those people. I knew how they lived. I knew what kind of houses they lived in, I knew what their lives were like. I knew the frame houses, all the same color, and the sameness of everything. I knew the company store and the preacher. I knew the guy who had the new truck. I knew all these people. I didn't know them by name but I knew them in some form, and I knew what I was looking at.
"The best way to describe the total destruction above Lundale is when you take a garden hose and spray it forcefully against the ground, it takes everything out ... the rocks and the pebbles all wash away. All you're left with is a bed of gravel. That's what it was above Lundale. All the houses had been wiped out. All the topsoil had been taken away with it. There were no structures, just little piles of debris here and there.
"We walked all the way up to where the dam was. We knew by then that it could not have been just a cofferdam. When we got there, it was massive, a huge, towering thing that had the whole left side out of it where it had broken through. Strangely enough, to the right of that dam was a house. Absolutely untouched. You could look from the dam across the hollow and see where the water had hit the other side of the mountain. The water came out of there and went WHUMP! And then it careened from side to side all the way down. It was absolute devastation, just like taking a dozer and scraping the land clear for 5 miles or so.
"We walked all the way back to Man, because there were no communications up the hollow, and called the newsroom first thing, and said 'It's unbelievable. We're going to have tens, dozens of bodies out here.' I think the count went up to 60-something that day. We couldn't file our stories because everybody was saying 'Stay off the phones, they're needed for emergency workers.' So we drove back to Charleston and we got here and wrote our stories and developed our film and gave the wire services all their information ... and the whole world lit up - The New York Times, Der Speigel - you name it and they were sending someone to West Virginia. Soon, help started pouring in.
"I finally got home Sunday night somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 or 11 o'clock, after not sleeping at all Saturday in the morgue, then walking up and down the entire hollow. I was pretty tired and dirty. I got cleaned up and went to bed and was in bed two hours when the phone rang. I'd been activated by the Guard.
"I spent the next eight days recovering bodies.
"I was just becoming an officer at the time. I was in charge of the farthest section up the hollow. We didn't have any structures standing, so there was no looting to worry about. Everything was scoured out down to rock and gravel, except the roadway, which was pretty much intact - even the asphalt.
"The entire state National Guard was in there, plus the Army Corps of Engineers, and coal companies ... Once the word was out, a lot of help arrived. Every morning, we'd get up at 5, then get in a truck and drive from Monaville where we were staying to Logan, and since you couldn't drive up the hollow, we took a back road from Stollings across a strip m ine that came out right behind the tipple at Amherstdale. There, we hit Buffalo Creek, and drove all the way up the hollow.
"In the midst of all this destruction, houses piled up against each other, we came to this garage that was still standing but tilting at an angle. I'll never forget it. There was a ''65 Impala - a big Chevrolet - in there that didn't have a scratch on it. Not a mark. Not even any water damage. We drove a small Bobcat dozer up, cleared out a path, started it up, and drove her out. It was amazing.
"Nobody was ever found who was trapped or injured. You were either dead or unscathed and that was it. There was no middle ground.
"Every day we'd walk the creek, people on both sides, and work our way up, looking in brush and whatever, then we'd come back to this big debris pile and start going through it, looking for bodies.
"We had an operator who was a really skillful guy. He had this big D-9 bulldozer and would take the blade and only use about 2 feet of it at the corner to scrape through the debris, while our guys would stand on top of it, below it and walk in front of it and walk behind it looking for bodies.
"We came up with an artificial leg, which got our attention. I remember just before lunch on our third or fourth day we were going through this debris for the last time that afternoon, and I was the last guy there while this operator was going through the debris. We found several baby dolls, and I'd take a tent pole and poke them to make sure they were just rubber. But when the dozer went through I saw this little hand sticking down, and I jumped down from the top of the debris below me and took the pole and as soon as I touched it I knew.
"It was a body. I screamed at the dozer driver to stop and of course that got the attention of all the guys in the crew. It was a little blond-haired girl about somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 years old. Just pretty, and pink for some reason, I don't know why. My son was about the same age at that time. As difficult as that was for me, I had a couple of guys start screaming, just lost it, which drove me crazy. So we stopped everything else and started taking the debris off this little girl and put her in a body bag, put her in the back of the truck and took off for the morgue.
"The next day we came back to check through the debris again - I think it was supposed to be our last day there - we started walking the creek bank just like our normal operation and found the body of a woman. I mean honest to God, it was right out in the open, right beside the creek. I don't know why we didn't see her before. She was partially covered in sand, laying on her face, looking upstream, not a mark on her body. So we put her in a body bag and took her down.
"We finished up the debris pile that day and the next morning we were burying people in a cemetery up the hollow. The ground was so cold and frozen we had a difficult time digging into it. Also, they needed some assistance getting equipment up to the cemetery site and getting caskets up there.
"The second day we went up there, there was typical funerals going on, you know, everyone was upset and they were having the final viewing. And it was the woman and the little girl we'd recovered. In the same coffin. It turned out to be a mother and her child. They'd lived in the first community below the dam and just got caught in the water.
"God, that was awful. Really hard to take. But I don't know. Maybe it helped bring a sense of closure to it. We'd found them, brought them in, and now we'd buried them.
"Buffalo Creek didn't really have a lingering effect on me like I thought it might. It was five or six years before I went back, and then it was like I'd never been there before. It had changed totally. The road was not where it was. The railroad had been rebuilt, but it was so alien to me it had no effect.
"We eventually recovered 118 bodies, I think, and seven were never found. I can see why. I remember this one church that was sitting on the railroad tracks. We drove by it day after day, both ways. It looked like it hadn't been hurt at all - just picked up and set there. About the fifth day, there's an ambulance parked there with its light on, and I thought, 'Oh my goodness, we've got somebody hurt.' They had a wrecker truck holding the corner of this church up, and there was a body under it. It had been under that church the whole time.
"As far as the journalism part of the experience goes, it was a horrible, bleak, dirty thing, but it was also something that had never happened in West Virginia before. A small part of you says you're glad you got to do it.
"It was a challenge, trying to tell people how widespread the destruction was, when you were operating in a vacuum. Photos helped, but they just gave you a little piece of the puzzle. If you put it all together, it was numbing, just mind-boggling. You can't know, let alone explain, the effect the flood had on all the people who lived there and were forever changed by what happened. It was an incredible experience."