February 26, 1972: Remembering the Buffalo Creek Disaster
Written by Your 5News Team
Created on February 26, 2013 @ 9:15AM
From the WV Division of Culture and History
In the days preceding February 26, 1972, rain fell almost continuously, although experts later claimed this was typical for late winter weather in the area. Buffalo Mining officials, concerned about the condition of the highest dam, measured water levels every two hours the night of the twenty-fifth. Although a Pittston official in the area was alerted to the increasing danger, the residents of the hollow were not informed. The company sent away two deputy sheriffs, who had been dispatched to assist with potential evacuations. Despite the lack of warning from company officials, some residents sensed the danger and moved to higher ground.
Just prior to 8:00 a.m. on February 26, heavy-equipment operator Denny Gibson discovered the water had risen to the crest of the impoundment and the dam was "real soggy." At 8:05 a.m., the dam collapsed. The water obliterated the other two impoundments and approximately 132 million gallons of black waste water rushed through the narrow Buffalo Creek hollow.
In a matter of minutes, 125 were dead, 1,100 injured, and over 4,000 left homeless.
The flood demolished 502 houses and 44 mobiles homes and damaged 943 houses and mobile homes. Property damage was estimated at $50 million.
The 15- to 20-foot black wave of water gushed at an average of 7 feet per second and destroyed one town after another. A resident of Amherstdale commented that before the water reached her town,
"There was such a cold stillness. There was no words, no dogs, no nothing. It felt like you could reach out and slice the stillness." -- quote from Everything in Its Path, by Kai T. Erikson
Another resident commented on the rushing tide, "This water, when it came down through here, it acted real funny. It would go this way on this side of the hill and take a house out, take one house out of all the rows, and then go back the other way. It would just go from one hillside to the other." -- quote from Everything in Its Path, by Kai T. Erikson
In 1967, the U.S. Department of the Interior had warned state officials the Buffalo Creek dams and 29 others throughout West Virginia were unstable and dangerous. The study was conducted in response to a mine dam break in Aberfan, Wales, in 1966, which killed 147, including 116 school children.
Three separate commissions studying the disaster -- federal, state, and citizen -- found that Buffalo Mining had blatantly disregarded standard safety practices. Pittson officials called the flood an "Act of God" and said the dam was simply "incapable of holding the water God poured into it." Rev. Charles Crumm, a disabled miner from the Buffalo Creek area, testified before the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the Buffalo Creek Disaster, ". . . I never saw God drive the first slate truck in the holler. . . ." -- Pittston quote from Appalshop film, Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man and Crumm quote from Disaster on Buffalo Creek, 1972
A circuit court grand jury failed to return any indictments against Pittston despite apparent violations of state and federal laws. Special prosecuting attorney Dean Willard Lorenson of the West Virginia University School of Law commended the jury, "It has been a noble exercise in American justice." -- quote from Grafton Daily Sentinel, November 16, 1972
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