Saturday, May 2, 2009

Buffalo Creek Disaster (eyewitness account)

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This article originally provided by The Logan Banner
February 27, 2008
Buffalo Creek disaster remembered
By JERRY FEKETE, Banner Correspondent, and J.D. CHARLES, Staff WriterPublished: Wednesday, February 27, 2008 5:12 AM CSTE-mail this story Print this page

On this day, 36 years ago, the Buffalo Creek flood washed away several communities and took with it 126 lives. Another 4,000 people were left homeless when the wall of water rushed through the Buffalo Creek area destroying everything in its wake. Banner file photo

BUFFALO CREEK — Today marks the 36th anniversary of the Feb. 26, 1972 Buffalo Creek Flood in which 126 people were killed and another 4,000 were left homeless, their lives shattered, when a man-made coal slurry pond owned by Pittston Coal Company burst, spilling millions of gallons of water down on Buffalo Creek and destroying everything in its path.The flood wiped out 17 small coal camps on its way through the valley.Four years ago, on the 32nd anniversary, Rev. Robert Peters remembered in an interview with The Logan Banner that tragic day in which his mother and father, Herbert and Martha Peters, were killed by the wall of rushing water that destroyed most of Buffalo Creek.

"I was working in the mines for Pittston at Toney Fork just three miles above where the dam collapsed," he said. "I was 38 years old at the time. I was working laying blocks just inside the drift mouth of the mines and my boss was Bill Merritt. We started about 7 a.m. that morning and the power went off ... just a little while later my brother in-law, James Isom, was there. I just knew something was wrong. James told me that we lost mom and dad. I just fell apart. They took my truck keys from me."Peters' voice wavered as he continued his tragic story."We went down there to the old home place at Pardee and there was nothing left there — the railroad ties was turned up into a U shape. I started hollering for mom and dad on the hill. I then walked up the hillside and walked three miles down the mountain looking for them. I saw hundreds of people on the hillside. I walked to Stowe looking for them (but) couldn't find them. Then I headed back to Toney Fork and walked over the mountain into Curtis," he said.

Peters claims the disaster might have been more man-made than most people realize."I then walked up to the dam after the water had went down," Peters said. "I saw some blasting caps and I followed the cable back onto the point where there was a beech tree. There I saw a battery charger. I have always felt bad at myself because I didn't take a picture of it. "I don't believe they intended to blow up the dam, but to just try to relieve some pressure. It was a negligent crime, not willful. There was some fellows who thought they were more qualified than they were. Late that evening, I took my truck and headed to the head of Buffalo Creek over into Boone County to my cousin, John Dempsey's house at Greenwood. You couldn't get down Buffalo Creek — the road was wiped out."Peters said the tragedy did not end at this point.

"I then headed back to Curtis later that day to my house," he said. "My wife was in the hospital at Logan and was in a coma for 30 days before the flood. Then I had another terrible experience when I walked down to Three Forks. Tenace Simple, a friend, had took a rope and tied it to his wife Goldie and pulled her out of the raging water. They hollered for me to come over were she was laying, I grabbed her hand and started praying for her, I could hear her heart beating but then her heart stopped beating and she died as I was praying for her. We had to set there and watch her die. I still had my mining work clothes on and was heading over into Elk Creek as it began to get late that evening. That's where I spent the night at Ub and Helen Morgan's house. We attended church together.''They gave me clothes and took me to the morgue at South Man Grade School the next day to see if I could identify my mother and father, but they weren't there. The next week, they told me they thought they found mom. I went in there and, sure enough, it was mom. She had only one scar on her face. Two weeks later, I was called in to see if I could find dad. There were special police in there from California, working in the morgue. I remember they put me on a lift and lifted me to the ceiling of the gym. My head was against the top of the roof, I had to look down and try to see if I could see dad. I spotted a man with gray hair that looked like him and pointed it out to them. Sure enough, it was dad."The area has seen many changes since the tragedy, Peters said in that interview.

"The only thing I like today about Buffalo Creek is the new road," he said. "Back then in the 40s and WWII it was a far bigger like Logan. Lorado was booming. It was so clean, and we had sidewalks — you could buy anything at the Lorado Company Store. Furniture, dry goods, hardware, even a tailor made suit. We had a movie theater, barber shop and a beer garden. The company even sponsored a church, a doctor's office and more. Today you have to drive two miles to get a loaf of bread. Also, back then everyone cared for each other in the coal camps. The love and caring was there people would go to the extreme to help each other. Today, people just drive on by. It's sad.Peters, who found redemption and salvation through Christ in 1962, retired from the coal mines in 1992.Eddie Canterbury and others remember well the tragedy of the Buffalo Creek flood.

When a dam burst one Saturday morning on Buffalo Creek in 1972, Eddie Canterbury was just a young National Guardsman who got called out for help."On Saturday, Feb. 26, 1972, one of the worst man-made disasters in history hit us," Canterbury said yesterday. "Over 120 people lost their lives when a dam burst and a wall of water and coal waste 30 feet high rushed into the area."Canterbury said that he had to get to Buffalo Creek through Kelly Mountain and Amherstdale. When he arrived, survivors of the tragedy were covered with mud. For the next 17 days, the young guardsman helped with the recovery effort. Canterbury's unit was in charge of recovering bodies.

"I was in the National Guard and I was having breakfast that morning with Tom George, who was the publisher of The Logan Banner at that time. We got a call that something had happened. ...I was driving a jeep and the water came up over the bumper at Morrison’s."Canterbury said he was not prepared for the devastation the flood wrought. Steel beams from bridges and railroad tracks were twisted like pretzels from the force of the water."When the water came down at Pardee there was a mobile home there that it hit. It literally burst," Canterbury said. "And yet the flood would hit one house and not touch the next one right across the road from it. One house would be destroyed and the next would be untouched. "

One Logan County deputy drove up the roads warning people the dam had burst, and according to Canterbury many people would not have known what was about to hit them."You have to remember, this was at 8 o'clock on a Saturday morning when most people were sleeping in. A lot of people had no warning. People at Pardee and Lorado were trapped in their houses. There were 57 bodies recovered at one bridge alone. National Guard trucks drove up and down creeks to gain access to populated areas because the bridges were often washed out or destroyed.Canterbury said the weather was very warm when the flood hit, but soon it got much colder, which affected the recovery effort, making it harder.

To add insult to injury, the guardsmen had to deal with looters the first night of the flood."We were not armed then, but we were the next night," Canterbury said, adding that the guardsmen were grateful to the Salvation Army for the help they received as well as meals. When supplies and mobile homes were sent in, the Oceana Police gave them tickets. "The governor sent some very mean state police in to deal with them. After that the relief people came through... I went up to the last coal camp, Curtis, and it was like being in another world."Canterbury shared his experiences in a past interview. He spoke about his own first-hand experiences in digging bodies out of the clinging mud and added that, today, Buffalo Creek does not even resemble what it looked like before the devastating flood.

"You can only imagine the devastation this thing caused," he said."The wall of water was 30 feet high. It was the first time I ever lifted a body with rigor mortis. It was like lifting concrete. A lot of people’s lives were forever changed that day forever — whole families were lost. I was only 24 years old and it was rough on me to experience that as just a kid.

Of all the hardship and difficulty, Canterbury said the hardest thing to deal with was recovering the corpses."It was a thing I never want to experience again," he said.The son of the man who warned Logan County of the Buffalo Creek Flood recalled more of that fateful day of horror which will forever live on in the memories of people who experienced it first hand.

Ronald H. Scaggs is the son of Buffalo Creek survivor Garland Scaggs, who recently passed away.Garland Scaggs will probably always be remembered for being the first person to contact the local radio station, warning people that the Buffalo Creek dam was about to break and they needed to evacuate the area when the water burst through and flooded the area. More than 100 lives were lost in the flood.

"Dad was at the Amherst Coal Company store the morning of the flood," Scaggs told The Logan Banner. "He was the bull with some of his friends. In walked Steve Dasovich who was running Buffalo Mining at the time. Steve was looking for some rain suits for those of us at Lorado at the time. Steve had just given me his rain jacket before he went to Lundale. He told those there that everyone was afraid the dam was going to burst at Three Forks. There were no rain suits so Steve went back up Buffalo Creek toward Lorado."Scaggs said the disaster happened within moments.

"Not long after that Dad and his friends heard a very loud roar. They looked outside and all they could see was debris — pieces of houses, a woman on a mattress, etc." he said. "They saw no water at the time. Dad ran to his car and drove to his and Mom's house at Robinette. He got out about 50 yards ahead of the debris. On the way, he saw some men on the bridge at Stowe. He stopped and asked them what they were doing there. They told him they were told by an Amherst Coal Company official to go there and take a woman off a mattress as she went by. Dad told them they were not going to be able to do that because of the massiveness of the debris in front of the flood and that they needed to get to high ground. They did just that.

He drove on home and told Mom to go to a neighbor's house on the hill behind theirs. He called the radio station and talked with Bill Becker. He then tried calling our home to see where I was. The phone went . He then went up the hill behind the house and watched as the flood went by. He did not see the in the dam. He was not an inspector. He was the payroll manager for Amherst Coal. "Scaggs said that Marty Backus of the Beckley Register Herald had once done a story on the incident what was accurate to what had happened that day."I believe Marty was working at the radio station that Bill Becker owned and maybe received the call from Dad," he explained.Some people's lives were destroyed by the Buffalo Creek Flood. Others have managed to overcome the tragedy.

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Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

Coal River Mountain Watch

Concerned Citizens in Mingo County

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