from Eyewitness News Online
Feb. 26, 1972 - Flooding Kills 125, Following Collapse Of Coal Waste Dam At Buffalo Creek (Part 2)
By Heath Harrison
February 26, 2014
This is the second installment on the anniversary of the Buffalo Creek disaster. To read the first half, go here.
The “Miracle Baby” of Buffalo Creek
There are many accounts of heroism and survival following the Buffalo Creek disaster, but Kerry’s Albright’s story is probably the most striking.
The morning of Feb. 26, 1972, began normally for the Albright family, living in Lorado, W.Va., three miles south of the Buffalo Creek dams. Father Robert Albright went to his job at the mines. At home were his wife, Sylvia Albight, 39, and their sons Steven, 17, and Kerry, who was 9 months old.
Sylvia had planned a trip for the day to a concert in Charleston, but had decided not to travel because of the heavy rains of the past few days. Robert was expected home from his shift at about 8:15 a.m., when the family would typically eat breakfast together.
Shortly after 8 a.m., the power began flickering and the family heard what they thought was a siren. Steven went out to investigate what turned out to be a neighbor’s car horn, warning them of the danger.
“When he stepped out, to his surprise, he saw a 20-foot wall of black water rushing toward him,” Kerry Albright said in an interview Sunday. “He knew in that moment that there was only one thing he could do, and that was run. So he went back inside and grabbed me and my mother.”
The Albrights ran out the back door, through the rising water, toward the mountain to seek higher ground. As they ran, they were quickly overtaken by the flood and were up to their waists in the black water.
“As they were running toward the mountain, the slurry - the sludge that was coming was holding them down, it was creating a suction so they couldn’t pick their feet up anymore,” Kerry said. So they decided to do the one thing they could, which was throw me.”
Neighbors who had made it to the hillside recalled seeing Sylvia and Steven count to three and toss Kerry to the hillside, before being swept away by the waters to their deaths.
Shortly after, Kerry was also caught by the water and was buried in the sludge.
About 30 minutes after the wave swept through the area, local preacher Ernest Vanover and his son began searching for survivors. The two were surprised to hear a faint noise coming from the layer of sludge which had covered everything.
“His son thought he that heard a baby crying,” Kerry said. “He said, ‘Well, you know, a baby couldn’t survive this. It must have been some animal, a cat or something like that.’ But they decided to look anyway, and, when they went over, they saw a little leg that was just sticking out of the sludge.”
Vanover and his son initially though it was a doll.
“They pulled me out of the mud and saw that it was me, and that I wasn’t crying or making any sounds at all,” Kerry said. “They had to stick their fingers down my throat and pull out all of the sludge and gunk. They said it was like black seaweed coming out of my mouth.”
Kerry eventually began to breathe as a result of their efforts.
“They thought I might make it,” he said. “But the back part of my leg was ripped off and was just the muscle in the front was holding it together.”
The men wrapped him in a coat and took him to a home nearby, where they found Sylvia’s first cousin, Katheryn Ghent, a nurse. Ghent did not recognize Kerry at first, because he was covered in coal oil. She washed him and got him to spit up the black slurry he had ingested.
Eventually, Kerry’s aunt Patty showed up and immediately recognized him. They realized that finding him without his mother meant Sylvia had died in the flood.
Ghent cared for Kerry until they could locate his father, directing Patty to keep two fingers in his throat to keep his airway open and to hold him upside down. Kerry remained silent while in their care.
Robert arrived in time to see the waters and realized immediately that the dam had burst. He went to the site of his home, where a neighbor told him Kerry might be alive. Getting to his son proved difficult, and it took him the remainder of the day to arrive at the home where Kerry was being cared for.
“They pulled him across a raging creek,” Kerry said. He came in into the little shack, which was on the side of the mountain. He just sat down and gave me a kiss on the cheek. That was the first time I actually started to cry."
Kerry’s uncle Larry created a road by clearing debris and they were able to get him to a hospital, where his father remained at his side.
“My dad sat there for three days, never left it, and never changed his clothes until I was stabilized,” Kerry said.
Five days after the flood, Robert identified Sylvia and Steven, whose bodies were at a morgue set up at a local school.
Robert never returned to his job and survived on disability payments and a payout from Pittston Coal. He and Kerry eventually moved to a new home in Lorado.
Kerry, now 42, lives in Brooklyn, N.Y and says he has suffered no health setbacks from the ordeal.
“I grew up, for as long I can remember, I was referred to as the “Miracle baby,” he said. “I was reminded of the heroism of my family and the community in helping me to survive.”
Photos: Kerry Albright, with father Robert in 1973; Albright in 2013 in Buffalo Creek/Photos courtesy of Kerry Albright
Aftermath of the disaster
In the days following the flood, Gov. Moore temporarily banned media from Buffalo Creek, citing what he called "irresponsible reporting," which he said was hurting the state's image and was "worse than the disaster."
Former Mine Safety and Health Administration Academy Superintendent Jack Spadaro was serving on the faculty of West Virginia University at the age of 23 when the Buffalo Creek dam failed.
“I was asked by the dean to go work as a staff engineer for commission appointed by the governor to investigate, he said. “We had a series of hearings and interviews with survivors and people with knowledge of the construction of the dam."
Spadaro arrived in Buffalo Creek in March 1972 and began his investigation.
“They were still recovering bodies from the debris and slurry,” he said. “I spent from March until August working on gathering data and wrote the report for the commission.”
Spadaro learned, as Hechler had before him, that problems had existed at the dam for years and that the concerns of residents had been ignored by local officials, who failed to act.
Spadaro found that Dam No. 3 was inadequately constructed.
“We determined that the dam was built on slurry deposited by the two previous dams,” he said. ”It overtopped the other two and came into contact with burning pile of coal waste."
In addition, Spadaro found that the company did not go through the proper legal process when building the dam and had failed to get a permit from the state Public Service Commission. He concluded that Pittston Coal was “guilty of callous disregard for the welfare of people downstream.”
The disaster had a major impact on Spadaro. Following his work at Buffalo Creek, he went to work at the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, where he served as chief of the agency's section on dam control, and went to work identifying and correcting problems at 150 dams deemed unsafe and a high risk throughout West Virginia.
Hechler also pursued action following the flood, leading a push to develop an adequate alarm system in case of future disasters. He said many of the residents were asleep when the dam burst and received no warning of the coming flood.
The West Virginia Legislature passed both the Dam Control Act and the Coal Refuse Act in the aftermath of Buffalo Creek and Spadaro was charged with enforcing the laws.
“We began vigorous enforcement and required mine operators to upgrade,” he said, stating that, for some time, the state made significant improvements to the safety of coal waste dams.
In addition to the tens of millions of dollars in property damage, the clean-up of the Buffalo Creek flood by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cost $3.7 million. The state eventually repaid $9.5 million to the federal government in 1988 to cover the costs and interest.
More than 600 survivors of the disaster joined to file a class action lawsuit against Pittston Coal for $64 million. They settled out of court for $13.5 million in 1974. After legal costs, each individual received an average of $13,000.
A second suit, filed by 348 child survivors seeking $248 million was settled for $4.8 million.
The state of West Virginia sued Pittston for $100 million. But, in 1977, just days before he left office, Moore settled with the company for $1 million.
Spadaro was highly critical of Moore’s decision, and referred to him as “the most corrupt governor West Virginia has ever had.”
“He let them settle for mere millions when hundreds of millions of damage was done,” Spadaro said. “It was under his administration that conditions developed that led to the dam failure.”
Hechler also said Moore was wrong in negotiating a settlement.
“I think Gov. Moore was more interested in protecting the reputations of those involved,” he said.
The lawyers for Pittston pledged to donate their legal fees to build a community center for Buffalo Creek, which was promised by Moore in 1972.
Construction still has not started on the center.
Spadaro also pointed out the lack of criminal charges against Pittston officials for Buffalo Creek.
“It was criminal,” he said. “Nobody was ever prosecuted for doing what they did.”
Pittston Coal continued in business until 2002, when its operations were acquired by Alpha Natural Resources.
While Spadaro said the state initially made progress on regulating coal waste dams, he said in recent years, the leadership at state agencies has ignored numerous violations and that the threat has returned.
He faults Joe Manchin’s tenure as governor, along with West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection head Randy Huffman, a Manchin appointee, with allowing conditions to deteriorate in recent years.
Spadaro pointed to existing dams, such as one at Brushy Fork, which he said were unsafe could result in another disaster like Buffalo Creek.
He said that in addition to enforcing existing regulations, far more stringent safeguards are need and a change in leadership needs to occur.
Hechler also said a change in leadership is needed and that as long as the current agency leadership is in charge, he thinks another dam collapse could occur.
“I think we should learn from the Buffalo Creek disaster that people are more important and their protection is more important than the production of coal,” he said. “I don’t think enough is done to emphasize protection, rather than production.”
Spadaro pointed out that another collapse like Buffalo Creek has already occurred, citing a 2000 spill at a Massey Energy impoundment in Martin County, Ky. sent 306,000,000 gallons of coal slurry into the Tug Fork River.
While the area was sparsely populated and no residents were killed, the spill, considered one of the biggest environmental disasters in the southeastern U.S., contaminated the water supply for more than 27,000 people and killed all aquatic life in Coldwater Fork and Wolf Creek.
Hechler said conditions similar to what caused the Kentucky spill exist throughout southern West Virginia.
“I think there’s a significant danger today because that whole area is honeycombed with debris from strip mines,” he said.
Spadaro said the failure to learn the lessons of Buffalo Creek can be seen today in the West Virginia water crisis where he said the DEP, under Huffman’s leadership, failed to properly inspect the tanks at Freedom Industries prior to a spill which released 10,000 gallons of MCHM into the Elk River. The water supply of 300,000 West Virginians in nine counties was contaminated as a result of the accident.
Albright agreed, and also saw parallels to the current water crisis.
“When you compare newer disasters to Buffalo Creek, it’s hard to keep giving that same speech of ‘What can we do so that this disaster never happens again?,’ when, in my viewpoint, it’s already happened again.,” he said. “It keeps happening again, year after year after year, and people keep trying to rearrange things and pretend it’s not the same thing, when, in fact, it is.”
This installment’s video features an audio excerpt from my interview with Albright, followed by footage, courtesy of the West Virginia State Archives at the Culture Center, of Moore speaking to the media following the disaster.
Special thanks to Spadaro, Hechler and Albright for their contributions to this installment.
- Mimi Pickering’s 1975 documentary “An Act of Man” is considered the definitive account of the Buffalo Creek flood. Watch it online at Appalshop’s site.
- Pickering returned the area in 1984, with "Buffalo Creek Revisited," which you can watch here.
- Appalshop has an entire page dedicated to Buffalo Creek.
- Marshall University has extensive archives on the disaster here.
- Kerry Albright's 2013 event at the Culture Center is available on on Youtube.
- An Except from the book "Death at Buffalo Creek," featuring Robert Albright is online here.
- U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller's statement on the anniversary of the flood, in which he says the state is still being affected by the issues behind the disaster, can be found here.
Hechler says the book "The Buffalo Creek Disaster," by Gerald M. Stern, one of the attorneys who represented the victims in the class action suit, is the most thorough account of the flood and its aftermath. It's still in print and easy to come by. (The most recent edition has a foreward by former President Bill Clinton.)
Below: Aerial photo of the Buffalo Creek site one day after the collapse
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