Gazette investigateive reporter Paul J. Nyden spent about two weeks talking to people from Buffalo Creek during the month after the 1972 flood. At the time, he was working on a dissertation about the rank-and-file reform movement in the United Mine Workers union.
Nyden completed his dissertation, "Miners for Democracy:
Struggle in the Coalfields" in 1974 and received a Ph.D. from Columbia
University. Here is the section he wrote about the Buffalo Hollow tragedy,
part of a chapter about coal mine safety problems in the late 1960s and
The Buffalo Hollow Flood
During the last week in February 1972, snow and rain poured down all over West Virginia. Water and melting snow drenched mountainsides where there was no longer any soil to hold it. For all over West Virginia, strip mine owners have torn away trees, plants, and topsoil to get at the coal seems beneath.
The little mountain creeks, whose beds were already filled with the silt and rocks which earlier downpours had washed off the hills, rose rapidly at the end of February. And water backed up behind many of the more than 900 slate dumps which coal companies had built in the hollows across southern Appalachia.
When coal is mined, almost one-fourth of the material brought up to the surface is waste -- slate and low-grade coal which cannot be burned commercially. In the mountains, the coal operators usually pile this material up across the little valleys or hollows near their tipples. As these dumps grow higher and higher, they block the streams which flow down from the surrounding mountains. The streams seep right through some of these dumps. But during heavy rains, water backs up behind them.
In 1945, the Lorado Coal Mining Company opened its Mine No. 5 near the top of Buffalo Hollow near Saunders, also called Three Forks because three little streams -- North Fork, Middle Fork, and Lee Fork -- flow into Buffalo Creek there. When Lorado began producing coal, it also began dumping slate at the mouth of Middle Fork. As the slate dump grew, it also began functioning as a dam.
The Buffalo Mining Company bought out Lorado in 1964, and built a second slate dam when the first one failed in 1967. In June, 1970, Pittston Coal acquired Buffalo Mining, and built a third slate dam behind the older two. These two dumps blocked the permanently-flowing Middle Fork and the dozens of smaller streams which sprung up after every heavy rain.
The oldest dump was piled up right on the edge of Buffalo Creek itself. In February 1972, this dump still smoldered and gave off the thick yellow sulfur smoke which used to hang heavily over every coal town in Appalachia. Buffalo Mining used the water which their dams trapped in its preparation plant, which drank up 500,000 gallons of water each day to wash its coal.
The series of lakes behind the dams were also used as settling ponds. After the water passed through the cleaning plant, it was pumped back into the lake. There, the tailings (minute particles of coal and coal waste) settled to the bottom of the pond, and clear water could be skimmed off the top and pumped through the plant again. Over the years, hundreds of tons of this sludge had collected on the bottom of the ponds -- more like quicksand than anything else.
During the last week in February, the waters in the ponds behind the Three Forks dams rose all week. The pond was nearly half a mile long, about 400 feet across and between 40 and 50 feet deep. But even though the waters in the ponds were rising, Pittston Coal kept pumping water from the cleaning plant back into the pond at the rate of 500 gallons a minute right through the night of February 25, when company officials had already become afraid the dams might collapse.
The series of three dams hadn't been built according to any engineering plan. None of the three companies which owned the property between 1945 and 1972 ever reinforced any of the dams with concrete or steel. They hadn't even used timbers to stabilize the huge mounds of slate and coal refuse.
In March, 1972, a Department of Interior Task Force stated; "The dam materials were found to be a homogeneous mixture of largely clayey shale and low quality coal, along with an occasional mine post, half-header, edges wooden crib blocks, roof bolts and other discarded mine material.... Dams Nos. 2 and 3 were built on a foundation of thin top soil, vegetation, trees, and coal sludge or impounded silt."
Pittston Coal never put in a drainage system to draw water off from the ponds when too much pressure built up. Company spokesmen later argued they couldn't drain the murky waters off their ponds because they would have killed the fish swimming in the relatively-clear waters of Buffalo Creek. Apparently the idea of filtering the water before releasing it into Buffalo Creek never crossed their minds.
The rains kept pouring down over southern West Virginia and Buffalo Hollow during the evening of February 25 and on through the night. The water behind Dam No. 3 rose an inch each hour, then two inches an hour, then faster still. Company officials became increasingly alarmed.
But they could never claim they had received no forewarnings of the ominous developments on the night of February 25 and of the tragedy which came with the dam.
In 1966, less than ten miles down the hollow in Amherstdale, lightning had hit a Island Creek Coal Co. slate dump during a thunderstorm. The dump exploded, sending streaming mud and slate to bury more than 20 homes in Proctor Bottom. Fortunately the people had been warned of the danger, and escaped in time.
Not long after that, another dam, less than 50 miles away from the Three Forks dam in Mingo County, had become weakened by heavy rains. The people living near that dam insisted that it be demolished. When bulldozers owned by a nearby coal company leveled it, they may well have prevented a disastrous flood.
Buffalo Mining and Pittston had two warnings even more direct than these. The original Three Forks dam itself failed in 1967. When water seeped into the smoldering section of the dump, it touched off a steam explosion which damaged some buildings in Saunders. After this explosion, a second dam was built, upstream from the already-existing dam.
Pittston built a third dam after it acquired Buffalo Mining in 1970. This third dam, whose collapse caused the Buffalo Creek flood in 1972 had also collapsed in February, 1971. When it collapsed for the first time, the ponds behind the second dam filled up with black water, but there was no flood. On April 16, 1971, the state of West Virginia cited Pittston for not constructing any emergency overflow system for the water impoundment behind the third dam. But state inspectors failed to follow up their citation, and at the time of the flood almost a year later, Pittston had failed to build any emergency spill ways.
The Events of February 26
But even while Pittston officials watched the water rising behind the Three Forks dams in the early morning hours of February 26, they did nothing but warn a few families that the dams might give way, something which they had done so many times in the past that the warning had begun to lose its effect. It was only when Dam No. 3 actually began to collapse, only when pieces of the dam began to break away, that Pittston sent for a bulldozer to dig a drainage ditch to relieve the pressure on the dam. They knew that any break in the third dam would endanger the stability of the front two.
After he had called for the bulldozer, the top company official on the scene, Steve Dasovich, got into his pickup truck around 7:00 A.M. and left the dam. He informed several people who had already evacuated their homes that the dam would not break, and discouraged two sheriff's deputies at the Lorado schoolhouse from spreading the alarm any further.
At 7:45, Dasovich was in Lundale in the Island Creek store, trying to buy raincoats for men working on the dam. Just after he left the store and began heading back up to Three Forks, the water came rushing down the valley toward him. He had to run for his life. Dozens of lives might have been saved that morning if Dasovich or any other Pittston official on the scene had taken action to alert the people of Buffalo Hollow.
At no point did Dasovich, who has a degree in mining engineering from West Virginia University, call the Bureau of Mines to inform them of the danger of the dams collapsing. And at no point did Dasovich or Jack Kent -- the superintendent of strip-mining for Buffalo who was supervising the efforts to control the rising water -- notify the National Guard, the West Virginia state police, or the Logan County sheriff's office about the impending danger.
By the time the bulldozer crew arrived at the dam around 7:00 a.m. from one of Buffalo's nearby stripping operations, the top of the dam was already moving back and forth. By 7:30, long cracks appeared in the dam, and the bulldozers were helpless to do anything. One of the workmen on the scene said, "It was like walking in soup -- it had gotten real juicy, buddy, all the way down. I got in the car and got the hell out of there."
Water began to pour over the top of Dam No. 3, as it began to slump. At 7:59 A.M., it collapsed, probably in the same place it had collapsed one year earlier. Within seconds, the turbulent waters rushed against the second dam and broke through into the clear pool impounded behind the first and oldest dam. As the moving waters hit pockets of burning coal waste in the first dam, they set off explosions.
According to a preliminary government survey: "The three or four explosions reported were severe enough to shake the ground at Saunders and raise mushroom-shaped clouds of ash and smoke. Moments later, at about 8:01 a.m., the torrent of water entered Buffalo Creek, having carried away about 100 feet of the face of the burning coal-waste bank and cut a canyon 45 feet deep and 500 feet long.
By the time the miners were coming off the midnight shift on the tipple, the water had already cut deep into the dam, and the explosions were throwing mud and rocks 300 feet up into the air.
As a huge gash opened up in the 50-foot high dam, more than 120 million gallons of water broke loose and smashed into the mountain opposite the dam, back up into the hollow a few hundred feet toward the mines, and then went crashing down the narrow valley which is only between 200 and 500 feet wide.
A wave of black water between 20 and 30 feet high, filled with thousands of tons of sludge and coal waste, poured down over the 16 coal mining towns, moving at about 30 miles per hour. As the flood waters tore little homes and churches from their foundations and wrenched steel rails from wooden railroad ties, it gained tremendously in destructive force. About 45 minutes later, the flood reached the bottom of the hollow, 700 feet below the elevation of the dam which had collapsed.
By 11:00 a.m., the worst flood in West Virginia's history had spent its energy, but not before it had destroyed five towns almost completely and damaged 11 more extensively.
One hundred twenty-five people lay dead beneath all the debris and about 4,000 were left homeless. Over 1,100 people were injured or treated for illnesses. Five hundred seven homes were demolished and 936 more were damaged, 273 seriously. Thirty house trailers had been destroyed; 30 business establishments and 600 automobiles had been washed away. People living down the hollow got about ten minutes warning of the approaching flood, but many families living right below the dam had none.
After the Flood
Buffalo Hollow is 18 miles long. Seven or eight thousand people lived along the creek between Pardee and Man, where Buffalo Creek flows into the Guyandotte River, which winds through Logan and eventually into the Ohio River at Huntington. About one out of every ten families along the hollow is black. Among the white families, there are many people of Italian, Polish and Slavic descent. Almost everyone living in the hollow was a miner, a retired miner, a miner's wife, or a miner's child.
After the flood, the hollow looked like a war zone. Most of the homes in ten towns were wiped out. In the little town of Braeholm, more than halfway down the hollow, only two houses remained along the river bottom where 75 houses once stood between the creek and the hard-top road.
In the towns just below the dam -- Lorado, Lundale and Crites -- nothing was left except for the strongest buildings. Lundale was a pile of boards, shingles, and twisted cars, except for two Amherst Coal Company buildings built on stronger foundations than any miner's home.
Further down the creek, houses stood in clumps which somehow avoided the fury of the flood waters. In Amherstdale, five little houses escaped destruction because the little cement-block Baptist Church shielded them as the waters rushed down the hollow.
Big John Bailey had lived at the top of the hollow. He had been a fighter during the Black Lung strike in 1969, and was an active member of the Logan County Black Lung Association ever since. During a rally held in Welch, West Virginia a few weeks before the flood, Big John had declared: "We've worked long and hard for the big coal operators and they're thanking us by killing us."
A leaflet appeared along the hollow a few days after the flood which read: "Big John knew what was going on. He lived all his life under the thumb of the coal companies. All he got was black lung disease and a 35-foot wall of water that buried him, his wife, and step-daughter. Black lung was killing Big John when the Pittston Coal Company put him out of his misery.... Who is responsible for these murders? The coal companies and Governor Moore say it was God. We know better.... They died for the sins of the Pittston Coal Company. We have to see that it can't murder again."
By February 26, Big John couldn't get around much anymore, according to his friends in the Black Lung Association. When he walked, he had to use a cane. At 59, he was dying of Black Lung. The last time anyone saw Big John, he was standing on his porch leaning on his cane, watching the wave coming at him.
In the days after the flood, thousands of homeless people crowded into Man High School, where a disaster relief center was set up. A few families and children left to stay with relatives in Chicago, Cincinnati, and Cleveland until new homes could be set up, but most of the homeless families waited until the government sent in trailers for them.
Those lucky enough to still have homes were at work cleaning them up. Mud and coal waste from the dam were everywhere. Even in Kistler, 15 miles downstream from the dam near the mouth of the hollow, homes had been lifted up and deposited several hundred feet away. The C&O Railroad bridge near the Kistler post office had been torn off at the banks of the creek. Its twisted steel rails stuck into the air like hardened spaghetti.
Every morning after the flood, John Riley came out of his house to look after his hogs, just as he has done ever since he retired from the mines in 1961. He was one of the lucky ones, for both he and his wife survived.
Sections of the large and elaborate hog-pen he had built out of old, splintered boards had washed away. The black water had risen a foot deep inside the pen, but it didn't hurt any of his eight animals. While he cooked food scraps for his hogs in a large rusted metal barrel over a wood fire a few feet above Buffalo Creek itself, John kept repeating: "It just ain't right to let a coal company do something that takes people's lives away."
John Riley had moved to West Virginia from Kentucky when he was 26. He worked underground for 42 years, retiring at 71. Looking forward to his 81st birthday on March 25, Riley watched the now calm waters of Buffalo Creek and said:
"I've been a working man my whole life. I never feel right if I'm not doing something. That's why I raise hogs today. It takes my wife and me about two hours each day to go around with our buckets gathering scraps from all the houses to feed our hogs. I feed them three times a day. I usually eat three times a day, so I feed them three times too."
Most people along the hollow were less fortunate. If their homes weren't washed away, but damaged, government construction crews and the National Guard condemned them. Each condemned house was marked with a large white "X." Then the bulldozers came, to knock the houses down and push them into a huge pile, which was then burned.
The owners of these homes were not consulted. A few people did protest and prevented their homes from being knocked down. Two families in Braeholm won court orders to have their homes saved. But two days later, they found them burned to the ground. Since the whole area was under the jurisdiction of the National Guard and the West Virginia State Police, the residents accused them of setting the fires.
Garland Clark, a working miner from Braeholm, demanded that his house be spared. He discovered the fire in time. He angrily proved his story by showing where his living-room windows had been broken. Rags soaked in diesel fuel had been thrown into the room and burned a section of his floor before he could put the flames out.
But even though Garland Clark saved his home, he lost almost everything in it. He had planned to retire on March 30 from his job with Island Creek. He and his wife owned their home and, over the years had furnished it with the things they needed.
Clark explained: "During the past couple of years, my wife watched carefully for every sale. She knew I was going to retire, so she would go out and buy me 10 shirts or other things she knew we would need when the money stopped coming in every payday. Now all we saved is gone. I don't see how we can every replace it. The coal company or the government won't do anything for us, unless we force them to.
Pittston Coal and the Government
While men like John Riley and Garland Clark were repairing their homes in the hollow, and while hundreds of families were still living in Man High School struggling to face the future without their homes and, in many cases, without members of their family, government bureaucrats and company officials were busy too.
They were busy devising theories explaining how the disaster occurred and who was responsible for it.
Francis J. Palamara, executive vice president of Pittston, came up with the most original one of all. He communicated his thought to the Charleston Gazette, which published them on the Tuesday morning after the flood:
"We're investigating the damage which was caused by the flood which we believe, of course, was an act of God." Palamara claimed there was nothing wrong with the dam at Three Forks, only that it was "incapable of holding the water God poured into it."
Francis Palamara's initial statement to the press had aroused such public outrage that ten days later, he was informing all callers:
"We are very much interested in trying to cooperate with people trying to put out publicity about this incident. But our legal counsel confines us to being extremely careful about what we say."
He added that the "most plausible and meaningful way" to handle any questions would be to record them over the telephone and then supply written answers.
Many of Buffalo Hollow's residents are deeply religious, and they felt that Palamara's "act of God" statement was blasphemous.
At a protest meeting held in the Buffalo Grade School in Accoville a month after the flood, an older woman stood up and won applause from everyone when she shouted out: "I've lived up at the top of the hollow for a long time. And I ain't never seen God up there driving no bulldozer dumping slate on that dam."
But Palamara was soon overshadowed by Governor Arch Moore, who certainly won the first prize for insensitivity.
Not to be outdone by remarks his predecessor Hulett Smith made after Farmington nor by Elburt Osborn's reaction to the Hyden explosion, Moore offered his analysis of the tragedy on Buffalo Creek. Quoted in the New York Times, Moore attacked the news media for their coverage of the flood:
"The only real sad part about it [the coverage] is that the state of West Virginia took a terrible beating which far overshadowed the beating which the individuals that lost their lives took, and I consider this an even greater tragedy than the accident itself."
Pittston Coal Company's contempt for the safety of people living in Buffalo Hollow was matched by its disregard for the safety of the 7,464 men employed in its coal mines. In 1971, Bureau of Mine inspectors levied $1.3 million in fines against Pittston for hundreds of violations. At the time of the Buffalo Hollow flood in February, 1972, Pittston had paid only $275 of these fines, 21 thousandths of one percent of the total.
Pittston's safety record ranked among the poorest in the country. Among the ten top coal producers of 1971, only Consolidation Coal topped Pittston in the number of fatal accidents per million man hours in its mines. Only Eastern Associated and Island Creek were ahead of Pittston in the rate of disabling injuries.
By the spring of 1973, Pittston accumulated another $700,000 in fines, but still hadn't paid many of them. Perhaps it was just a coincidence that Interior Secretary Rogers Morton's brother was Thruston Morton, Nixon's chief fund-raiser in 1960 and a member of the Board of Directors of Pittston Coal. At any rate, Pittston's thirst for profits had cost the people of Buffalo Creek 125 lives and more than $50 million in property damages.
The familiar pattern of a coal company flagrantly disregarding the law and of both federal and state government doing nothing to enforce the law came into focus again during investigations into the causes of the flood on Buffalo Hollow. Section 77.216 of the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act clearly stated:
"If failure of a water or silt retaining dam will create a hazard, it shall be of substantial construction and shall be inspected at least once each week."
But Buffalo Mining Company never made any inspections of its dam and never filed any reports with the Bureau of Mines. The company had obviously never made sure that the dam was of "substantial construction." The Three Forks dam also violated at least three different West Virginia laws.
Since 1913, West Virginia required "permits, approval of plans, and inspection during construction for impoundments more than 15 feet deep." A second state law required special permits before any water was impounded for recreational or industrial use. A third law, the Water Pollution Control Act, made it illegal to dispose of any mine refuse without a special permit. Neither Buffalo Mining nor Pittston ever attempted to obtain any of these permits. To have constructed a safe dam would have cost Pittston between $50,000 and $200,000. But to do so would have eaten into their profits, which were $44.4 million in 1971.
Just as three of the men who were killed in Centralia's No. 5 Mine in 1947 had written to their governor about the unsafe conditions a year before that disaster, so too did one of the victims of the Buffalo Creek flood write to her governor about the danger posed by the Three Forks Dam. In a letter to a Governor Hulett Smith, dated February 5, 1968, Mrs. W.H. Woodrum of Saunders wrote:
"Dear Sir, I live about three miles above Lorado. I'm writing to you about a big dam of water above us. The Coal Company has dumped a big pile of slate about four or five hundred feet high. The water behind it is about 400 feet deep and it is like a river. It is endangering our homes and lives. There are over 20 families here and they own their homes. Please send someone here to see the water and see how dangerous it is. Every time it rains it scares everyone to death. We are all afraid we will be washed away and drowned. They just keep dumping slate and slush in the water and making it more dangerous every day.
"Please let me hear from you at once and please for God's sake have the dump and water destroyed. Our lives are in danger."
Mrs. Woodrum received a reply from the governor assuring her that the dam would be inspected. She never heard anything more. On the morning of February 26, Mrs. Woodrum was quite aware of the danger, for she had been living in Saunders in 1967 when the dam collapsed the first time. She evacuated her home just before the dam collapsed again in 1972. As she watched the waters come rushing down the valley, one of the first things she saw was her own home riding on the crest of the waves.
Back in 1966, nearly six years before the Buffalo Hollow flood, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall commissioned a special study of slate dumps in Appalachia to be conducted jointly by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Mines.
A terrible disaster in a little Welsh coal mining community had prompted Udall to order the study. In Aberfan, 144 people were killed when a slate dump (called a "tip" in Britain) perched on a hill 500 feet above the town collapsed. With the motion of an ocean wave, the tip moved off the hillside and engulfed many homes and an elementary school. Among the victims were 116 children, scheduled to go on vacation the next day.
In November and December, 1966, William Davies, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, spent several weeks in Appalachia. He examined 38 different slate dumps and banks in West Virginia and found 30 were unstable and four were critically dangerous. The dam at the top of Buffalo Hollow was among the unstable ones. In completing a mimeographed questionnaire on the Three Forks dam, Davies warned of serious danger.
"Would this bank remain stable after hurricane-like precipitation?" read question number 28. "No," answered Davies. Question number 30 asked: "In your opinion is this bank or nay part of its unstable?" Davies printed, "Bank subject to large washout on north side from overflow of lake." "If bank should be unstable, what would be the result?" a third question demanded. "Large wash would fill valley," was the geologist's response.
In March, 1967, Secretary Udall prepared a summary of Davies' investigations of the 28 slate dumps. Noting that "only a small fraction of the total number" of these dumps had been visited, Udall warned four dumps needed immediate attention and that many of the hundreds of slate dumps all over southern Appalachia represented potential danger to the people living below them.
Udall sent the summary to both U.S. Senators from West Virginia, the governor and the state's five Congressmen, including Congressman Arch Moore, who would be the governor when the Buffalo Hollow dam broke. With the exception of Congressman Ken Hechler, none of these state officials reacted. Hechler toured the area in the summer of 1967 and demanded action to prevent "the kind of catastrophe that struck Wales." His pleas fell on official ears deaf to the problems of coal miners and their families.
In 1973, more than a year after the Buffalo Hollow flood and seven years since Davies conducted his survey, hundreds of slate dams still sat among the mountains of southern West Virginia, impounding millions of gallons of water above towns like Pageton, along the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River. After many warnings and one major tragedy, coal companies in West Virginia continued to do nothing about their slate dams.
The Aberfan Disaster
On the morning of October 21, 1966, after many days of heavy rains, the maintenance crew coming off the midnight shift on the tip in Aberfan saw the slate dump below them rise up and turn over itself, breaking like a wave. After the top of the dump rolled off, a great mass of black liquefied waste, 30 feet across, burst out of the center of the tip.
The waves, between 20 and 30 feet high, crashed down the mountainside, disappearing from view in the early morning mist. The miners on the hillside could only hear the screams of children as the black wave inundated Pantglas Junior School and several cottages. One hundred sixteen elementary school children were smothered, along with 28 adults, five of them school teachers.
Dai Benyon, deputy head of Pantglas Junior, managed to throw himself over three children in protection. Two others ran to his side. He tried to use a blackboard to cover them, and that was how rescuers were to find him. All 34 children of his class, aged nine and ten, died.
Events preceding the tip slide at Aberfan were strikingly similar to those preceding the flood in Buffalo Hollow. Tip number seven did not collapse without warning. It had slipped twice before after heavy rains, in May and November 1963. The National Coal Board took note of the danger, but did nothing. Tip number seven, begun at Easter, 1958, was different from the six older tips at Aberfan. In 1962, a new system of coal washing was instituted. This system utilized chemicals which, together with the fine tailings, formed a very slippery and unstable liquid much, about twice the density of water.
After the collapse, a Councillor from Aberfan and a Member of Parliament from South Wales were among the many officials who pointed to their own past warnings of the danger. Even the cautious and conservative London Times wrote: "In every major disaster there are people who declare that 'they' were warned and took no notice. But in the tragedy of Aberfan, the echoes of past warnings are strong, clear and consistent."
Tip number four at Aberfan had moved 1600 feet down the mountainside toward the village in 1944, nearly 20 years before two more slides at Tip number seven in 1963. A memorandum on tip slides was issued in 1939, after a slide at Clifynyndd (down the valley from Aberfan) had covered over a road. This memo was re-issued in 1965, when a tailings slide occurred at the Tymawr Colliery in Pontypridd. This memo stated that tips should be built on stable ground and should not rise more than 20 feet. At Aberfan, tip number seven was built on a hillside above the town and rose 111 feet into the sky.
Despite these repeated warnings, Lord Robens, the conservative Chairman of the National Coal Board between 1961 and 1971, was quoted in the London Times as claiming: "The Aberfan disaster has produced a new hazard in mining about which we knew nothing before." A few months later, Robens finally admitted the National Coal Board could have taken safety precautions and prevented the tragedy. If company and government officials in the United States had been as honest as Lord Robens, they would have made the same admission of negligence after the flood on Buffalo Hollow.
An interesting parallel between Buffalo Creek and Aberfan was the attitude of the people toward the military. The National Guard was flown into Buffalo Creek to coordinate the rescue effort. Within a few days, the U.S. Army was put in charge of operations in Logan County. While the Army did help, they also functioned to keep people out of the hollow, especially newsmen barred from the upper eight miles of Buffalo Hollow after the first couple of days. The Army also made sure that damaged homes and cars were burned up or carted away before the people had any chance to salvage them. No organized hostility erupted against the military, but resentment burned among many of the homeless people from Buffalo Hollow.
In Aberfan, the British military also played a role in disaster relief, but the civil authorities used them very cautiously. Many miners and steelworkers of South Wales hate the British military. Anti-militarist feelings date back at least to 1831, when the army was called out against protesting iron workers. Just six months before the 1966 disaster, the council of Merthyr Tydfil, the largest town near Aberfan, refused the military permission to hold a two-hour recruiting exhibition.
"Merthyr could serve a better purpose than inviting the army here to show off their weapons," said representative David Tudor. "We can all see what is happening in Vietnam with little children being burned and young boys being killed."
In 1959, the council barred all army training facilities from their schools, arguing "such activities are calculated to breed a race of Hitler youth." The mayor of Merthyr Tydfil supported the council's action.
Relief Efforts on Buffalo Creek
Many people of the mining towns in South Wales are very militant and hate the London government. The Communist Party is strong there. While the miners in southern West Virginia are less ideologically oriented than the Welsh miners, they too have long resented their government in Washington. The people of Buffalo Hollow did not enjoy seeing their sons drafted to fight in Vietnam, especially when unemployment awaited those who survived and returned home. They resented a government which refused to enforce mine safety laws passed by the Congress. This resentment was directed toward the various national and state agencies which administered the relief efforts during the weeks following the flood.
The government agencies certainly did assist the people of Buffalo Hollow, but they never gained complete trust. None of the agencies ever tried to involve the people in making decisions about the relief effort. The only local people consulted where those in positions of authority or power in the country. Some of these even benefited from the tragedy. Neal Skaggs, for example, was the beneficiary of $500,000 in government improvements to the property which he leased to the state for trailer parks to house homeless flood victims. Neal Skaggs is the brother of Alfred "Buster" Skaggs, the man who owned Buffalo Mining before he sold it to Pittston in 1970.
Various private agencies also participated in relief efforts. The behavior of many people from these agencies reflected paternalistic attitudes many in authority hold towards people in the coalfields.
Perhaps the most blatant expressions of arrogance, even contempt, came from the American Red Cross, in charge of the emergency relief operation in Man. The Red Cross has a sordid history in the coalfields, a history of helping coal operators break strikes by refusing to feed the starving children of striking miners until their fathers returned to work. In 1935, the Red Cross helped the nonunion operators in Harlan County fight the National Miners Union both in this way and by actively recruiting strikebreakers for the companies.
Many Red Cross personnel, especially those with the least authority, acted as if they were generals in an army made up of the flood victims. One young staffer assigned to the Man High School marched through the corridors at night, ordering restless people to stay out of the halls and go back to sleep. Red Cross volunteers were, in general, better than the permanent staff, for the volunteers came from Logan County itself.
Among the other people who descended upon the Man High School were some verbose young fundamentalists form the Beckley Bible School. They provided the homeless people with sermons on sin and damnation, as if the flood waters had ripped through Buffalo Hollow as divine punishment for coal miners' sins. Perhaps the only relief organizations which consistently expressed a genuine concern for the people of Buffalo Hollow were the Salvation Army and the Mennonite Disaster volunteers. Perhaps the men and women of the Salvation Army knew how to treat the people of Buffalo Hollow because most were poor and modest people themselves.
In the weeks after the flood, contributions poured into Logan County from people around the country. The flood victims themselves were not permitted to handle any of the money, just as the miners' widows at Farmington in 1968 and Hyden in 1970 were prevented from controlling money sent to them and their families.
Stories sprung up all over Logan County that both money and clothing was being stolen, the latter than being sold in local used clothing stores. But robbery was also committed in a much more organized fashion. Bankers in Logan managed much of the money coming in, and they used it to pay off mortgages on home which had been washed away and on automobiles which had been damaged and hauled away for scrap metal. The banks got their loans repaid, but he people from Buffalo Creek got little or nothing. People also resented the Red Cross, which collected hundreds of thousands of dollars for the people of Buffalo Creek, but gave those people no voice in determining how contributions were used.
The Corning Glass Company donated over $10,000 worth of dishes and glassware for the flood victims. When it arrived in Logan County, Sheriff Ralph Grimmett intercepted some of these dishes and began giving them away as part of his campaign to win the May 1972 primary. Grimmett was finishing out the unexpired term of his predecessor Earl Tomblin, sent to jail for stealing votes in the 1970 election.
Such corruption was not unusual in southern West Virginia. Until recently, neighboring Mingo County was widely known for high voter turnouts in every election. In 1960, there were 31,000 registered voters in Mingo, a country with fewer than 40,000 residents, more than 17,000 of whom were under 21! Rarely did a person stop voting in Mingo County just because he died or moved away.
Buffalo Hollow Before the Flood
In many respects, Buffalo Hollow and Logan County were disaster areas long before the black waters came rushing down the hollow cold February morning. When the coal mines began laying off men in the early 50s, families had to leave the county or starve. Between 1950 and 1970, the population of Logan County fell from 67,349 to 46,269.
In 1971, half of all people working were employed in the coal mines; miners received 62.4% of all wages earned in the county. Unemployment was high, especially among young people. At the time of the flood, hundreds of returned Vietnam veterans were jobless.
In the days after the flood, you could sense the hollow's poverty by walking through the streets of Man or driving along the blacktop road to Amherstdale, where a police barricade blocked further travel up the hollow. In Man itself, there were 40 small business establishments and 26 more between Kistler and Amherstdale. These 66 businesses included 10 beauty shops and barbers, 10 gasoline stations, eight grocery stores and eight restaurants. Three of the grocery stores were Island Creek supermarkets and the two biggest restaurants were owned by deputy sheriffs of Logan County. Deputy Sheriff Otto Mutters and his wife ran the Man Smoke House and Deputy Sheriff Max Doty owned Doty's Shake and Burger.
The remaining 30 businesses included nine clothing stores, several of which specialized in used clothing, six appliance outlets, and seven small stores selling items such as pharmaceuticals and flowers. There were four auto body shops, one used car dealer and a coin-operated car wash. There was one hotel above the Man Smoke House and one movie theater, which advertised one showing a week, on Sunday afternoons.
H.W. Brown, a retired Black miner, lost his home in the flood and lived in Man High School for several weeks. As he watched the little children running up and down the halls of the school, he described the problems they faced in "good" times:
"It's a dirty shame about our youngsters. Whenever they finish high school, they have to leave home. I've got three children. One of my girls is a nurse up in Buffalo, New York; the other one works as a secretary in Cleveland. My son drives a truck for a construction company in Cleveland. Now I have four adopted grandchildren living with me. I don't expect nothing for them around here either. Of course, the girls could do someone's cooking and washing. But I want to send all my grandchildren to college. No more cooking and washing for them."
As Brown talked, he turned his attention to the flood. "I don't think these coal companies care too much for the laboring class of people. I worked for them my whole life. They just want that coal. Do you know Pittston told us that God caused the flood? What do you think of that? I believe God intended for man to be happy and for us to live together with one another. He intended for everyone to share with everyone else. He would never cause a flood on Buffalo Hollow. That was Pittston Coal. Nobody else!"
Two Classes of People
H.W. Brown's feelings are shared widely. Most people on Buffalo Creek see their world in terms of two classes: the "working class of people" and the "class of people in with the coal operators and big money men."
These class divisions were reflected in how people analyzed the cause of the flood. While in Logan County, this writer spoke with nearly 100 miners, worker, and poor people. Among these, only three or four didn't believe the company and the government were responsible for the flood. One woman who didn't blame either the company or the government believed in predestination. To her, God had decreed that the flood would take place, and no man could have prevented it.
Almost the same unanimity existed among those people the miners described as the "class of people in with the coal operators and big money men." While many small businessmen in Man agreed with the miners, the more prosperous businessmen and politicians in Logan claimed they couldn't figure out who was responsible for the flood. Some held a variation of the "act of God" theory, put forward by Pittston's Vice President.
UMW officials also had a difficult time deciding how the flood had come about. The District 17 office in Charleston refused to make any comments at the time of the flood. Two officials of the Welfare and Retirement Fund came to Man High School to help victims get the special benefits from the Fund to which they were entitled. When they were questioned about who was to blame, Leo Vicini and Jack F. Ratecliffe answered: "That whole subject hasn't even crossed our minds. We're just here to fill out our forms."
By the last week in March, a month after the dam higher than Niagara Falls had burst apart, it was "business as usual" for the coal companies along the hollow. All 10 mines in the narrow valley reopened within a couple of weeks, except for Pittston's two mines at the very top of the hollow.
The flood had torn up nearly all the railroad track along the hollow, demolished a dozen railroad bridges, and washed away sections of the right-of-way. But in one month, the railroad was almost completely rebuilt. Only the final two or three miles of track up to the Pittston mines weren't finished until April.
But the blacktop road the people of Buffalo Hollow drove over was not fully repaired even by the end of the summer. People were not allowed to rebuild their houses. The state government had long planned to build a four-lane highway through the valley towards Beckley. Now they didn't face the problem of removing houses and compensating people for their property. When by early 1973, the government still refused to permit people to rebuild homes, some people began moving back onto their land in defiance of the state.
The people of Buffalo Hollow protested to Pittston Coal. They met together after the disaster in school buildings around the county. They filed a lawsuit for $50 million against Pittston. On March 6, a delegation travelled to Charleston demanding Gov. Moore include some coal miners on the investigating committee he was establishing, a demand which Moore rejected flatly.
As one gray-haired women was leaving Arch Moore's executive offices in the Capitol Building, she turned back and said: "These coal companies have been polluting our rivers and creeks for years with their acid and coal sludge. Now they're polluting our creeks with blood. We ain't going to stand for it any longer.
"One 51-year-old miner's widow from Kistler summed everything up. Minnie Cook Chapman's first husband worked in the coal mines for 42 years, and died from miner's silicosis and emphysema:
"He didn't even get his miner's pension because he couldn't prove to the UMW how long he had worked. The companies he worked for either shut down or claimed they lost their records. He worked in 22 inches of coal some days. He had to carry his dinner bucket in his teeth, while he crawled into the mine on his hands and knees."
Minnie Chapman had three children. Her 27-year-old daughter works in the Man Appalachian Regional Hospital as a nurse's aide. Her second daughter died when she was two:
"My little girl needed to go to a hospital. But down here if you don't have cash money in your hand, the hospitals won't take you in. I didn't have the money, so my little girl had to die.
"I only had one son. He got sent over to Vietnam and got killed in 1969. My son. That goes deep with me. There's days when I don't even want to live no more. My Daddy was a coal miner too. He ain't been dead but four years. He worked more than 50 years in this holler. My second husband's a coal miner too, but he ain't doing too good right now.
Minnie's second husband died from Black Lung a few months after the flood. Minnie's brother, Lucien Conn, was also a coal miner. Disabled today, Lucien is a leader in the Disabled Miners and Widows of Southern West Virginia.
Enraged by the flood, Minnie kept telling her neighbors in Kistler: "I'm going to take a Whitman's candy box I have at home and fill it up with all this mud the flood brought into my house. I'm going to fill the box up and say it's a chocolate cake, and then give it to one of them lawyers from the Piss-in Coal Company. That's what I call it."
Roger Clark, a little blonde-headed boy only six years old was listening to Minnie and spitting tobacco juice into the mud. After Minnie had renamed Pittston Coal, he added, "That's not what I call it. I call it the Shit Coal Company.!"
Standing near the now-calm waters of Buffalo Creek as the sun went down behind the mountains, Minnie talked about the future:
"We've got to win back what belongs to us. We've got to make Pittston pay our people. But we're fighting for a lot more than that. What we're really fighting for is to see that this never happens again. No more Farmingtons and Hydens. No more Buffalo Creeks!
"There oughtn't to be another damn lump of black coal going out of this holler until Pittston Coal pays for what they did to us. This creek ought to cry out from the top to the bottom. Buffalo Creek ought to cry out from its source in the mountains above the dam to its mouth in the little town of Man."
And so should this whole country -- because of what has happened to the coal miners."