MAN, W.Va. — “It was raining so hard, it hurt,” said Speedy Bevins, formerly with WVOW Radio in Logan talking about February 25,1972.
Bevins was in high school and leaving a basketball game at the Logan Field House on the eve of what would become one of the worst tragedies in West Virginia history and ultimately one of the worst in American history.
Along Buffalo Creek in Logan County many had grown concerned in recent days about three earthen dams at the head of the hollow owned and maintained by Pittston Coal Company. The ponds were the catch basin for mine water runoff. However, because of freezing and thawing conditions, a sudden onset of warm temperatures, and a deluge of rain, there was more concern than normal. Four days earlier, an inspector had declared the dams safe. However, at 8 am Saturday of the 26th, the dam breached and unleashed 132 Million gallons of black water onto the unsuspecting valley below.
Many were still in bed in the communities which lay along the creek downstream.
“Billy Aldridge came down the road blowing his horn saying the dam had broke. About 8:15 the power went out when it hit the power station above the house and I told my wife we better get out of here,” said Uhel Adkins who spoke with MetroNews in 2007 on the 35th anniversary.
Adkins and his wife, like many, left their home and fled up the steep hillside in their backyard and kept climbing. Most wore nothing but their night clothes since they fled so fast.
“It almost like a ‘cry wolf’ situation because they had been awakened two or three months before at three-o’clock in the morning saying the dam has broken and it didn’t,” said Dave Allen, Radio host of 580- Live on MetroNews Flagship Station WCHS Radio in Charleston. Allen was a year old and lived in the next hollow over the mountain at Huff Creek. His dad worked at the company store on Buffalo Creek.
“He and another gentleman were the only ones in the store when people came by and said the dam had broken. He and the guy he was with went up the side of the hill and hung onto a tree for 12 or 14 hours,” Allen said on his radio show Thursday.
Allen’s mother thought her husband was dead.
“She didn’t think anybody could survive this, but later that night a National Guard truck pulls up at the house and he jumped off the back,” he explained.
Others weren’t so lucky. Marty Backus was a newsman at WVOW Radio in Logan. Now retired and living in Pikeville, Kentucky he recalled the events of that day.
He was at the radio station and got a call from a man at Buffalo Creek who was good friends with radio station owner Bill Becker. During a phone conversation, the man told Becker the dam had broken. Becker was concerned he might be over reacting and asked him to explain.
He said, ‘Bill I’m looking out the window of my house and there’s a woman and a child on a mattress floating down the river,’ Backus explained.
Backus imbedded with several people to get a ride into the disaster area. He initially got with a friend who had access to a truck which could ride the railroad since the Guyandotte River had flooded out the main route into the area. A Man, West Virginia he joined a county road maintenance supervisor in Logan County. He was in a pickup truck and suddenly was getting plenty of attention.
“People started coming up to him and saying, ‘I got a body over here.’ We had to finally get volunteers to ride in the bed of the truck to keep the bodies from slipping off,” Backus said.
Backus, now in his 80’s, also vividly recalled work to clean out an underpass under the road in the community of Ehrling. The machine’s first scoop of debris picked up a little girl in her pajamas. He recalled walking into a machine shop and finding multiple bodies laid out in the floor in a makeshift morgue.
Veteran newsman Bob Brunner of WSAZ Television recalled a similar scenario when he and his cameraman accompanied Senator Jennings Randolph into a grade school.
“We slipped in there with Randolph and suddenly relatives I found myself in a room surrounded by bodies and Senator Randolph consoling grieving,” he explained.
It would be days before the full extent of the disaster would be known as bodies continued to be found. Six of the missing were never located and some were found downstream–one of them weeks later in the Ohio River near Paducah, Kentucky. The dam break and flood killed 125 people and injured 1,100. It left 4,000 people homeless. The water destroyed 507 houses, 44 trailers, and 30 businesses.
Today, 50 years later, a marker and memorial park near Man pays tribute to those who died and those who survived but have been haunted by the memories for the past five decades.