Buffalo Creek Disaster: 42-Years Later

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Excerpt from “Buffalo Creek Disaster: 42-Years Later” feature article in the July 2014 print edition of Appalachian Magazine.  Click here to purchase the print magazine!

Saturday, February 26, 1972, was a day Logan County, West Virginia, resident, Tom Sparks, never forgot.

For Sparks, the morning began in the wee hours of night. Tossing and turning in his bed, the West Virginia man grew increasingly fearful of the potential danger the past week’s rain deluge was placing upon his home, family and neighbors.

Sparks’ fears were not baseless. His family lived just yards below a series of makeshift dams that had been constructed to store nearly three decades’ worth of mine sludge—the liquid and solid waste byproduct that results from the coal mining process.

February 1972’s rainfall levels totaled to an astonishing amount that was 86% greater than the month’s average reading. This fact, coupled with the understanding that deep mountaintop snows were beginning to melt caused an uneasy tension to sweep through the communities downstream of an unstable chain of dams constructed by mining companies.

Despite these fears, very few residents chose to leave their homes — a move that would prove devastating in the coming hours.

Unable to sleep, Sparks gathered his family together around 3 a.m. and headed to Bernie Wilson’s home, where they would be safer.

Wilson was a family friend who, like Sparks, believed the dam was approaching disastrous levels.

Shortly after daybreak, Sparks and Wilson left the residence and headed to a nearby service station to purchase gasoline. Afterwards, they picked up Harold Sloane, a mutual friend, and drove to Sparks’ house where the group began feeding hogs.

Just yards below the dam, Sparks entered the cramped and narrow hog pen. Wilson and Sloane leaned against the enclosure, talking to him as he performed his daily chores.

In a matter of moments, the morning’s foggy serenity vanished, as the men heard the undeniable sound of water rushing over the dam.

Looking to the top of the mountain, Sloan and Wilson observed a charging wall of mine sludge racing their way.

Notes from an interview with the men, taken roughly a month later, declared:

“He saw the water hit… on the outside of the dam, approximately 100 yards from Sparks’ house, across the road at the right of the dam. Mr. Wilson said the slag dump exploded, carrying water and slag 100 feet in the air.”

“The water coming over the dam pitched up and shifted to the right side of the dam,” said Wilson, who yelled for the men to get away from the hog house and run to higher ground.

“All three men ran across the highway, over the railroad tracks and up the mountain directly opposite Sparks’ house.”

Unable to do anything but watch the destruction unfold, the men looked on from the side of the mountain as more than 130 MILLION gallons of black wastewater roared through the valley.

First to be wiped out was the community’s church, located just below the series of dams.

The wall of death then continued down the hillside, taking out Harold Sloane’s house.

Charging through the valley, thirty years’ worth of polluted water destroyed the pig pen the men had just been gathered around, before sweeping Sparks’ home and vehicles down the valley.

In the seconds that followed, the State of West Virginia would experience the worst flood in its history and the same county that played host to a deadly stand-off between striking miners and armed mine bosses—roughly a half century earlier— would soon find itself em-broiled in yet another struggle between the residents of the mountains and the mega-corporations that owned the mineral rights beneath their feet.

In total, sixteen West Virginia communities were devastated by the flood, leaving 5,000 individuals home-less, 1,121 injured and at least 125 people dead………………

The Day of Reckoning
Saturday, February 26, 1972, proved to be a day of reckoning, as the laws of nature came to collect a debt owed to it by the coal companies who had operated the series dams blocking Buffalo Creek.

Sadly, the unbearable payment would be made by the citizens of West Virginia, as 125 people paid with their lives. Thousands of homes would be destroyed in a single instance and even more individuals would be forever marked by the scars of such tragedy.

Ezra Lusk lived below the dam and was at her home the morning the dams burst.

Protected by a rolling hill, Lusk’s home was never impacted by the flood of water.

Hearing the deafening sounds of the dam from her porch, Lusk watched as a boy ran to safety atop the crest of the hill in front of her house.

Telling her story to investigators two months following the flood, Lusk stated, “There was a boy come run-ning off the hill and said, ‘everything is gone.’ I said ‘what do you mean everything gone,’ and he said, ‘there ain’t nothing down there, church house or nothing’ But, it was hard for me to believe that, so I just went on down to see, and there wasn’t…”

Carol Hoosier was a Logan County housewife, whose husband was an employee of the Buffalo Mining Company.

According to her testimony, Hoosier overheard someone telling her husband, who was sitting on their front porch, that the dam was about to break.

At this point, she decided to warn her parents who lived next door.

Entering her parent’s house, she quick-ly warned her mother, who was in the kitchen and her father, who was still in bed.

She later stated that her father became mad and told her “not to become upset over nothing.”

No sooner than returning to the kitchen, Hoosier heard a loud noise which sounded like boards banging together.

Looking out the kitchen door, she observed water and debris rushing toward the house.

Yelling from across the road, Hoosier’s husband directed her to get in their car and drive the couple’s two children to safety up a mine road.

Running out the door, Hoosier said that she watched as her mother went into the bedroom to get her father.

She, her husband, and children jumped in the family’s automobile and raced to safety, while debris rubbed against the rear of the car.

Sadly, Hoosier said her mother and father never left their house, which was washed away in the flood. Upon reaching safety, the young mother looked back and could see a wall of black water covering the entire hollow……………..

The above is an excerpt from “Buffalo Creek Disaster: 42-Years Later” feature article in the July 2014 print edition of Appalachian Magazine.  Click here to purchase the print magazine and read the entire feature article!

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