By Pam Brennan
Steve Thompson Witnessed the Buffalo Creek Flood Disaster First Hand.
He lives in my building. We have had a couple of conversations since he moved in and that is how I found out he was from Logan, more specifically, Man, West Virginia. Today is the 40th anniversary of the dam bursting which was owned by Pittston Coal Company. I wondered if perhaps he had lived there when the dam busted so I asked.
He is a quiet man. When I asked him if he remembered anything about it I could tell by the look in his eyes he remembered before he even spoke another word. He agreed to talk to me about it because he feels it is important that people remember one of the biggest mining disasters in U.S. history.
On February 26, 1972, 125 people were killed when the dam burst. At least 3 others were never found. Over 1000 homes were destroyed as well as 4000 people left homeless. Steve is always surprised when it comes up that people don’t know about it 40 years later.
“There has never been another accident of these proportions where 125 people drowned at one time in West Virginia history. So how could they not know?”
He lived up on the hill in Amherstdale. Amherstdale is about halfway up the hollow between the dam bursting and the town of Man which is where the wall of water was headed until it met the Guyandotte River. In all there were 16 communities washed away that day.
Here is his first hand account:
It was around 5 o’clock in the morning and it was at the edge of night turning to dawn. There was just enough light to make out objects in the dim, rainy morning light. He had a cousin who liked to drink. His cousin came in the house and told Steve’s mom that he had just seen a cow floating down the creek. She didn’t pay much attention to him and he repeated it. She shrugged him off, telling him, “Go sleep it off.”
Steve was just curious enough that he had to go look. Sure enough when he looked down at the creek it was swollen with water and he saw a cow go by and then another and then another. He said at first the water was rushing toward Man in a smaller wave that filled the whole valley from the mountain on the one side to the other mountain on the other side.
Then all of a sudden he saw a 15 feet high wall of water coming from up the hollow. After the wall of water then he started to see whole houses, cars and even people. He saw everything imaginable in that water as the black, sludgy wall slammed through the valley, stripping it clean. It left only deep, sucking river mud littered with debris in it’s wake.
He looked down the hill to his neighbor’s house. Paul Basham and his family lived there. Somehow Paul managed to get his wife and kids to safety. They had to run up the mountain as so many people did that day. Paul didn’t make it out of the house before the wall of water hit. Steve watched as Paul climbed on to the roof of his house as it was ripped from the foundation. By some miracle Paul rode on top his house as it was being shredded by the waves. He managed to grab a branch of a tree as the house passed under it. He had to stay in that tree all day because it took that long for the water to recede.
After the water passed everyone was in shock. There were no birds, no sounds of nature. Any animals he saw were in a panic. He couldn’t help. He could only watch helplessly as his friends and neighbors with everything they owned were washed away.
They had no power for 4 months after the flood. It took almost a year to get running water. Steve’s family was fortunate because they had a spring in their yard which the neighbors also used. That is until the state condemned it probably because of mine runoff but he doesn’t really know why. The government brought in trailers for people to live in. Hundreds of them were lined up and families were torn apart who had lived in neighborhoods for generations.
There was a class action settlement from Pittston Coal that paid $3000 to each person in the valley. Also there were many settlements of hundred’s of thousands of dollars to families who lost loved ones. Sometimes the whole family died. Many brothers and sisters and mothers and sons were buried together in any combination you can think of. Thousands of people were left homeless with sometimes not even the clothes on their backs because the water washed them away.
Pittston Coal still maintains to this day that it was an Act of God that caused the dam to burst – not shoddy construction.