MAN, W.Va. — “It was raining so hard, it hurt,” Speedy Bevins, formerly of WVOW Radio, told Logan, speaking on Feb. 25, 1972.
Bevins was in high school leaving a basketball game at 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, there had been growing concern in recent days about three earth dams at the head of the trough owned and maintained by Pittston Coal Company. The ponds were the catchment area for runoff water from the mine. However, due to freezing and thawing conditions, the sudden onset of warm temperatures and a deluge of rain, there was more concern than usual. Four days earlier, an inspector had declared the roadblocks safe. However, at 8am on Saturday the 26th, the dam burst and released 132 million gallons of black water into the unsuspecting valley below.
Many were still in bed in communities along the creek below.
“Billy Aldridge came up the road blowing his horn saying the dam had broken. At about 8:15 a.m. the power went out when it hit the power station above the house and j told my wife we better get out of here,” said Uhel Adkins who spoke to MetroNews in 2007 on the 35th anniversary.
Adkins and his wife, like many, left their home and fled up the steep hill in their backyard and kept climbing. Most were only wearing their night clothes because they fled so quickly.
“It’s almost like a ‘cry wolf’ situation because they had been woken up two or three months before at three in the morning saying the dam had broken and it hadn’t,” said Dave Allen, radio host of 580-Live on MetroNews Flagship Station WCHS Radio in Charleston. Allen was one year old and lived in the next hollow above the mountain at Huff Creek. His father 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. Him and the guy he was with went up the side of the hill and hung on 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 anyone could survive this, but later that night a National Guard truck pulled up in front of the house and he jumped out the back,” he said.
Others weren’t so lucky. Marty Backus was a reporter for WVOW Radio in Logan. Now retired and living in Pikeville, Kentucky, he remembers the events of that day.
He was at the radio station and got a call from a Buffalo Creek man who was good friends with radio station owner Bill Becker. During a phone conversation, the man told Becker that the dam had broken. Becker was worried about overreacting and asked him to explain himself.
“He said, ‘Bill, I’m looking out the window of my house and there’s a woman and a child on a floating mattress in the river,'” Backus explained.
Backus joined several people to get to the disaster area. He first met a friend who had access to a truck that could use the railroad since the Guyandotte River had flooded the main road in the area. In Man, West Virginia, he joined a county road maintenance supervisor in Logan County. He was in a van and was suddenly attracting a lot of attention.
“People started coming up to him and saying, ‘I have a body here.’ We eventually had to get volunteers to get into the bed of the truck to keep the bodies from sliding,” Backus said.
Backus, now in his 80s, also vividly recalled working to clear an underpass under the road in the community of Ehrling. The machine’s first shovel of debris picked up a little girl in pajamas. He remembers walking into a machine shop and finding several bodies lying on the floor in a makeshift morgue.
Veteran reporter Bob Brunner of WSAZ Television recalled a similar scenario when he and his cameraman accompanied Senator Jennings Randolph to an elementary school.
“We snuck in there with Randolph and suddenly I found myself in a room surrounded by bodies and Senator Randolph consoling grieving relatives,” he explained.
It would be days before the full extent of the disaster was 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 breach and flooding killed 125 people and injured 1,100. It left 4,000 people homeless. The water destroyed 507 houses, 44 trailers and 30 businesses.
Now, 50 years later, a landmark and memorial park near Man honors those who died and those who survived but have been haunted by memories for five decades.