The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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February 26, 2012

Looking back at the Buffalo Creek Disaster

Southern West Virginia had seen terrific rainfall in the days preceding the Buffalo Creek Disaster. People in Logan County had heard rumors that the shaky, oozing coal waste dam in Middle Fork Valley was leaking, but no one was prepared for what happened next.

At 8 a.m. on Feb. 26, 1972, 130 million gallons of water and coal sludge burst through the dam, poured into Buffalo Creek, and violently surged through 16 coal mining towns. The most destructive flood in West Virginia history swept away entire homes, families and communities in a matter of hours.

Pittston Coal Co. owned the slurry impoundment. Officials there called the flood an “Act of God.” The state sued for $100 million, but in the end, Gov. Arch Moore accepted a $1 million settlement. The state was left with $13 million in unpaid cleanup bills. Survivors received payouts from civil suits in the low thousands.

Forty years later, Register-Herald reporter Mannix Porterfield recalls the history-making day, and its heartbreaking aftermath. Porterfield was 27 years old at the time, and a reporter for the United Press International.

He had never been to Logan on a news story, and he had never thought much about coal waste dams. Then, on Saturday morning, he got a call from his bureau manager that changed his life.

What follows here is Porterfield’s recollection of those days.

He (the bureau manager) said, “We just got a report that five or six people have drowned in Buffalo Creek at a place down in Logan County. I don’t know what’s going on, but it looks like it could be very bad.”

A half hour later he called back and said, “Now they’ve found 12 bodies.”

A few minutes later, it was up to 22.

He said, “We’ve got to get you down there right away.”

I don’t know how much later, they confirmed that this coal impoundment had collapsed. Sent down this huge wave of water, millions and millions of gallons of it.

Gov. Arch Moore had arranged a deal so that somebody from AP and UPI could fly down in helicopters. It was raining so hard they couldn’t go airborne, so we had to wait until Sunday. We got down there and landed in the football field at Man High School.

I wanted to get up in the holler. I knew that’s where the action was. I knew this was probably going to be the biggest news event I would ever cover, and in fact it turned out to be that.

I flagged down this lieutenant driving with the National Guard.

I said, “Can you give me a ride home up the holler?”

He said, “Sure, get in.”

We’re driving up that winding road, you know. We got about a mile or so from the dam.

He said, “How long have you lived up here anyway?”

He noticed my tape recorder and note pad.

I said, “Oh, about 10 minutes.”

He stopped the Jeep and said, “You got away with it this time, but please don’t try it again. This is for residents only.”

It taught me sometimes you’ve got to use a little subterfuge to get to a scene or get information.

But by being up there (in the hollow) you had an opportunity to interview survivors, because they were starting to drift back in.

I was just flabbergasted when I saw that whole scene down there. I mean, it looked like a battlefield. As if some foreign enemy had flown in and nuked the place. Debris was everywhere. Bridges were smashed to bits. Homes were left in splinters — what little was left of them. Railroad tracks had been yanked up and twisted. They looked like huge metallic pretzels.

You were wading around in mud, of course, up to your knees. When I got home, the first thing I did was strip down completely and take all those clothes out into the backyard and burn them.

You know how stagnant water smells, and mud ... Sometimes it was almost overwhelming.

People were just totally disconsolate, looking through stuff, looking for bodies, looking for pets, looking for possessions. Of course everything had been swept away.

One of them ... I mean, he was just numb. He wasn’t weeping or anything, but you could tell he was just in a state of shock almost. He told me about his neighbor, a guy he had lived with over there for years. Said he saw this tidal wave coming over the mountain and he tried to go unchain his coon dog. He was fumbling with it out of panic, and couldn’t get it loose.

He said, “Before I knew it, I saw the water take both of them.”

And there were just all kinds of stories like that.

Then you had that horrible scene at the Man — I believe it was the junior high school — where they had turned it into a makeshift morgue. It reminded me of a scene out of  “Gone With the Wind.” You know the scene where all the bodies are out in the street?

I think there were 125 known dead. It was hard to believe that this was reality, that I was witnessing all this.

You’re trying to deal with families of victims and you feel like you’re invading their privacy and their heartbreak.

All you can do is ask, “Can I ask you some questions? Can we talk?”

And I think one or two just shook their heads and I didn’t pursue it. But the rest of them — you know how West Virginians are, we’re a very friendly people. Most people were warm, friendly, outspoken.

You do have this shared grief for the victims, but you just keep it inside. You can’t get emotionally involved with people when you’re doing a story. It’s like a surgeon going into the OR, or maybe a cop at a murder scene.

You just don’t want to do it, but you have to. You’ve got a job to do. And our job was information. But it bothered me, it really did.

One of the most gut-wrenching things down there — I went back to the hospital and they had this board set up in the lobby. They would keep updating it with new confirmed victims. It was tough watching those families come in and run their fingers down the list. And they would stop at a name and you knew then it was Uncle Joe or Aunt Martha, or a son, a daughter.

One thing that really impressed me, though, was there was no immediate display of emotion. They just had this blank stare of resignation ... no tears, no shrieks, no moans, no nothing.

It was something I thought about for some time afterward. One of my co-workers said people in those coal communities are used to being battered by this and that. They are used to hard times. And this was just another little installment in the progression of a hard life, I guess.

I think the one personality that really stands out for me was Otto Mutters. That’s a name that Hollywood couldn’t come up with, you know?

He was one of the key people in that whole tragedy. He was the deputy sheriff and he tried to warn people. He went door to door and they just ignored him, most of them, because they had heard rumors before. Another case of crying wolf.

It had leaked before. That’s probably one reason, or the main reason, that people didn’t take it seriously when people started spreading this alarm before sunup about that dam was ready to crack. They had heard that time and again. This time ... it was too bad.

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We got back to the bureau — we flew out in helicopters — and I had the main story on it and I had like four sidebars involving survivors. Then I went back down there and I think only stayed one and a half, maybe two days. And by then the recovery was pretty much way into progress.

Different organizations were down there trying to get people resettled into mobile homes. That was a big process. And as I recall, the most helpful people were the Mennonites. I really developed a deep sense of respect for those people. They quietly went about their business. They weren’t sending out press releases saying, hey, look what we did today. They just did the work, you know.

I think in three days down there, I slept a total of six hours behind a huge curtain on a stage at Man High School. I lived on hot dogs and Cokes and doughnuts and coffee. So I don’t think I could have been too emotional anyway.

Of course, then it was time for the blame game — who was responsible? Was it Pittston Coal Co.? Was it the DNR? Was it negligence on both?

When somebody said it was an act of God, that was just universally denounced by everybody. Personally, I thought it was ludicrous. It wasn’t an act of God, it was a matter of negligence, and there was plenty of guilt to be spread around. Plenty of blame, between the coal company and the DNR.

Isn’t it funny that people blame the Lord when things go wrong, but they never give Him credit when things go right? But that was no act of God, I can assure you of that. That was a man-made tsunami, and it was preventable.

Once they got that death toll up and confirmed, it was one of the biggest stories in West Virginia’s history.

That was the most horrific thing I ever witnessed.

We went back 10 years later for an anniversary. You would never have known that there had even been a pool of water anywhere in that place. Totally rebuilt. It was like a normal community.

For the anniversary, we took Otto Mutter right up to the dam. He got out, and as I recall there’s a little monument there. And Otto just broke down in tears.

He got back in the car and says, “Fellows, I’m sorry, these were my friends and neighbors.”

He said at that time he still felt bad that he was unable to convince these people of this impending doom. Because he knew what was going to happen when that dam broke.

I think we need to keep a real close tab on these coal mine impoundments. I mean you could have all kinds of potential disasters just waiting to happen.

They need to be inspected, examined periodically. And if there are flaws or defects, they need to be corrected.

You just can’t expose people to a threat like that. I think human life comes above everything, or it should.

Maybe the state learned from it. I hope they did.

It was one of life’s defining moments, like the Kennedy assassination or 9/11. You remember where you were, exactly what you were doing at the time. It’s a date I’ll never forget, and it’s an experience that will just be with me for the rest of my life, when you see a tragedy of that magnitude unfold before you.

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