Remembering Buffalo Creek 50 Years Later

PHOTOS | Boothe Davis : Captured by the Moment Photography

Bill Lusk | WVOW News

MAN, WVa Community members gathered Saturday afternoon at Man High School to take part in a moving ceremony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Buffalo Creek Flood.

At approximately 8 a.m. on Feb. 26, 1972, a coal slurry impoundment dam owned by Pittston Coal Company burst, releasing 132 million gallons of water, coal refuse and silt into the Buffalo Creek community.

Raging black water with waves cresting over 30 feet rampaged through 17 communities destroying anything and everything it could find its path.

Saunders was the first in its path followed by Pardee, Lorado, Craneco, Lundale, Stowe, Crites, Latrobe, Robinette, Amherstdale, Becco, Fanco, Riley, Braeholm, Accoville, Crown and finally Kistler.

Rev. Eddie Maynard, who was a 17-year-old Man High School senior, recalls the events of that dark, gloomy Saturday morning.

“I saw so much that I will never be able to get out of my mind,” Maynard said. “Every moment of that day I relive it and the sad thing is that I don’t have no childhood.”

Maynard, who resided in Pardee, had his childhood wiped away that morning fifty years ago.

“I can’t remember things that I used to be able to do, but yet I remember that day,” Maynard said. “It was like today, but it was colder, and it was snowing.”

Cars, trucks, houses, and buildings were swallowed up by the raging waters that had ripped through the Buffalo Creek community. Nothing in its path was safe.

Just four days earlier, the dam had been declared satisfactory by a federal mining inspector.

There were three dams in total, Dam No. 3, built on a coal slurry sediment, was constructed in 1968, and was directly behind Dam No. 1 and No. 2.

Water levels continued to rise as nearly four inches of rain fell in three days on Buffalo Creek. Weather experts claim that this was typical late winter weather for Buffalo Creek.

One day before the dam burst, water levels had risen to one to two inches per hour behind Dam Number 3, and at 1:30 a.m. on February 26, the rising water was just twelve inches from crest. Less than seven hours later, the dam had busted.

Reverend Mike Pollard, who was serving his sixth year in the Air Force and was stationed near Kansas City, Mo., recalls a news report about a dam break in the Buffalo Creek area of West Virginia.

Rev. Pollard

“Hold on! That’s my hometown,” Pollard said.

Pollard, who owned a 1964 Volkswagen Beetle, drove seventeen hours back home only stopping once or twice to catch a catnap.

Pollard, who served his tour in Southeast Asia between Thailand and Vietnam, had no knowledge of whether his family was safe or if they had been killed in the flood.

“Communication lines were down,” Pollard said. “It was scarier than the time I did in Southeast Asia, but fortunately when I got home, I was able to find my family safe.”

Residents ran for the hills, narrowly escaping the floodwaters, while others clung to trees, logs, limbs or whatever else they could grab hold of to escape the raging waters.

Billy Jack Dickerson was just ten years old when he woke up that Saturday morning. Dickerson, a retired Environmental Science teacher at Man High School, lived at Lundale.

“I am a survivor,” Dickerson said. “I was there, I saw it with these eyes, and I lived it.”

Dickerson said the unfortunate events of that tragic Saturday morning have never left his memory. Dickerson and his two brothers, Darren, seven, and Jackie, 13 months old, had gathered in the living room to watch Saturday morning cartoons.

“On the morning of the Buffalo Creek disaster, we were sitting there like many young kids watching cartoons,” Dickerson said. “We were still in our pajamas the lights flickered and I guess one of the things that saved us was that our house faced upstream.”

By being able to look upstream, Dickerson’s mother, looking out the front window, noticed that the creek was as high as it had ever been. Without hesitation, Dickerson’s mother urged him and his brother Darren to get their shoes on that something was going on.

“When you live in coal company houses you always keep a pair of shoes by the door,” Dickerson said. “They were a fire waiting to happen and unfortunately, I didn’t have a pair there, but my mother had a pair of gold lame house shoes.”

“I wore those bad boys out proudly,” Dickerson said. “They kind of looked like elf shoes, they didn’t match my flannel pajamas.”

As Dickerson and his family walked out the door, they noticed the flood waters fastly approaching them and by the time they reached the first set of three railroad tracks the lead edge of the waters had arrived.

“By the time we go over the hump over the first set of tracks, we are wading water,” Dickerson said. “We go over the second set and we are wading more water, and when we get past the third set of tracks there were men standing there.”

Dickerson’s mother reached his 13-month-old brother up the hill and as soon as they had reached the top of the hill Dickerson remembers turning around and to this day, he still remembers the image of his house tilting backwards and eventually being destroyed by the flood waters.

“Fifty years later, it will forever be burned into my brain,” Dickerson said. “We stood there huddled together on that hill side and watched our lives go away and change forever.”

Lives were changed forever as 125 people lost their lives, another 1,121 were injured and more than 4,000 of the 5,000 Buffalo Creek residents were homeless.

A total of 507 houses, over 40 mobile homes and nearly 30 businesses were destroyed in what Pittston Coal Company claimed was an act of God and refused to accept responsibility for its negligence.

State and federal investigations ruled that the flood was caused by unwarranted construction of coal waste, and the state of West Virginia sued Pittston for $100 million in disaster and relief damages.

The Buffalo Creek Flood brought new laws regarding dam construction and maintenance.

More than 600 survivors sued the coal company seeking $64 million in damages, but settled for $13.5 million, roughly $13,000 for each individual.

Children under the age of 18 had trust funds set up in their name, and many of those, once they turned 18, brought cars or used the money to pursue a college education.

Entire families died. Brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers were buried together.

Buffalo Creek has since been rebuilt, but the community will never be the same. It will never be what it once was and will forever be remembered as one of the worst mining-related disasters.



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