F. BRIAN FERGUSON/Sunday Gazette-Mail
From the yard of his Pardee home, Donald Johnson, 38, looks up the hollow in the direction the wall of water traveled 25 years ago.
By Robert J. Byers
PARDEE - Stray dogs roam the barren upper reaches of Buffalo Creek. Peering from beneath the shelter of the long-deserted tipple, they offer a slow, wary wag to cars passing along the narrow road.
There once was a town here called Saunders or Three Forks, but it is 25 years gone. There used to be a huge dam filled with black murky water, but it's gone, too. There's just brush ... standing dormant, waiting for spring.
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Just down the hollow, among the scattering of houses known as Pardee, Donald Johnson pauses to consider that it was a quarter-century ago when his father came home from working all night in the mine and heard the dam giving way. The family got out in time, but the house was torn from its foundation.
From that day forward, all was changed for Johnson and most everyone on Buffalo Creek. Nothing could ever be the same.
While a hundred West Virginia coal towns and hollows underwent and continue to undergo a slow demise in the face of mining mechanization, Buffalo Creek and the 17 towns that lined it banks took their medicine in one bitter dose.
"Things would've been a lot better around here if it never would've broke," Johnson said.
Upon turning 18, the juvenile survivors of the disaster received a legal settlement averaging $2,800. Johnson, now 38, was one of those recipients.
"A lot of the kids got their money and turned to drugs. All of a sudden, they had all this money. They went wild," Johnson said. "Back before the flood, nobody around here even knew what pot was."
His family home gone, Johnson had moved away from Buffalo Creek following the disaster, but upon getting his settlement, he bought a pickup truck, got married and relocated to the only home he had ever known.
Why the survivors returned to the scene of so much horror is unexplainable, but return they did. Today the hollow is a scaled-down and more modern version of its past self. Folks keep to themselves a lot more, and there's an odd quiet that pervades from Kistler to Pardee, but residents of Buffalo Creek who lived through the flood are like the members of an exclusive club. They can talk to scores of curious outsiders about what they experienced, but no one can understand like a "club" member.
"After it washed my house away, I had a place all picked out in Tennessee," recalls Charles Crum of Lorado. "Why I didn't go and decided at the last minute to rebuild here, I can't tell you. I just don't know."
As he walks down a Lorado side street, Crum pauses to let a neighbor walk on ahead. "He lost his wife in the water," he says softly. "It's not good to talk about it around him. It still hurts, I know."
Twenty-five years later and the hurt still hangs over Buffalo Creek like the gray winter sky.
"There's still a lot of pain here, but it gets a little better every year," Crum says.
"We waited 20 years"
In the coming weeks, at a tiny roadside park in Kistler, two Buffalo Creek time capsules are to be buried. Inside will be various news clippings and mementos telling of the disaster over the years.
The capsules are part of an ongoing effort by a small group of residents bent on keeping alive the memory of the 125 people who lost their lives.
Glenna and Melvin Wylie, mother and son, are leaders of the effort. Last year, they finalized plans for the roadside park and granite slab listing the names of the dead.
"We waited 20 years, and finally decided that something had to be done," said Mrs. Wylie, 71. "It took us about two years just to get the land."
The memorial is fenced, and inside, a small pavilion protects visitors from the elements. A signature book lists visitors in the past few months from as far away as Denver and Phoenix.
Not a drop of spray paint stains the memorial. The small grassy lot is free of litter.
"The kids have been real good about leaving it be," Mrs. Wylie said.
Melvin Wylie, 41, is very protective of the memorial, giving a close eye to a couple of recent visitors.
"The year it happened was my senior year in high school," Wylie recalled. "I lost my grandfather and a lot of classmates."
Shortly after the water receded, Wylie's father and his teen-aged son left their Kistler home on a hike up the hollow.
"At that time, all we saw on television was scenes from the war - men in uniforms and helicopters," Wylie said. "And as we were walking, I looked around and thought, this must be what Vietnam is like."
That ghastly trip up the hollow is something Wylie will never be able to banish from his mind.
"It affected me," he said. "It still does."
And as Wylie recently sat in his mother's kitchen, telling of seeing a large scoop accidentally pluck the head from the body of one of his classmates, Mrs. Wylie slowly shook her head and said, "I've always thought his father shouldn't have taken him up there."
In the years after the disaster, Wylie worked for Pittston Coal, the very company responsible for the faulty dam.
"My job was to fill in the old dam," he said. "We worked from '78 to '93 on that, filling it in with slate and dirt and rock. It was always strange driving up there each day to work and thinking this is the thing that killed all those people."
The dam burst at 8 a.m. on Feb. 26, 1972, after a few days of hard rain. More than 130 million gallons of black water poured down the hollow, killing 125 people and injuring countless more. Four thousand people were left homeless.
Pittston called it "an act of God," words that still sting survivors' hearts.
F. BRIAN FERGUSON /Sunday Gazette-Mail
A memorial at Kistler pays tribute to the victims.
The ideal of home
Mining still goes on in the hills surrounding Buffalo Creek, but employment opportunities are scarce in the huge mountaintop surface mines.
Aside for Saunders, which was never rebuilt, the towns remain, although they more resemble small neighborhoods than towns. There are no grand old structures left from coal's heyday. Most of the houses and trailers are less than 25 years old.
In the decades before the flood, sisters Wanda Carter and Anna Salisbury lived with their parents in a century-old log home at Pardee. It was a home with a history that precluded their family, but to Wanda and Anna, it became, and remains to this day, the definition of what home should be. Unfortunately, it's just an ideal, and 25 years later, it remains an unattainable goal.
The killing waters tore the house to splinters. The family members were scattered throughout the hollow that day, and all survived. Carter was at Saunders and outran the flood by car and on foot.
Salisbury still cries when she thinks about that day and what it did to her life. She cries over Goldie Sipple, the neighbor fished from the flood and brought to the house where she was staying.
"She was covered in that black muck from head to toe," she recalled. "We laid her out on the bed and she would scream and pray to die, and when she did, you could hear all that black water bubbling inside her, eating at her like a cancer.
"She died a little while later with her mouth frozen open - she had been screaming to the end. We had to tie a cloth diaper under her chin and over her head to close her mouth ... I can still hear her screaming."
The family moved back to Buffalo Creek following the disaster, but what they found was unfamiliar.
"Everybody there was like one big happy family before the flood," Salisbury, 48, recalled.
"Afterward, people weren't as friendly," said Carter, 50. "Everyone's so protective of what they've got, because they once lost everything."
Salisbury again lives at Pardee, but the familiarity has never returned. It's not the home she remembers.
Glancing at the ceiling, her mouth set firm to try to stop the tears, she whispers, "I don't have a home."