An Act of God or Man?: The Buffalo Creek Flood

West Virginia History
WVU-IT

Cheryl Pack
November 4, 1997
February 26, 1972 started out like any other winter day in Buffalo Creek. Rain had been falling for several days. The day was dark and cold. Wendell Osbourne Sr. had no idea that this day would not be just any winter day. This day would end with the destruction of his entire way of life. By 10 a.m. on that Saturday morning, he would lose his son and daughter-in-law, his daughter, and 8 grandchildren . In fact, the break of the Pittston Coal company’s dam at 8:05 that morning released more than 130 million gallons of black waste water. The subsequent flash flood caused the deaths of 125 people, injured 1100, and left over 4000 people homeless. In addition, 1000 vehicles were destroyed, 502 houses and 44 mobile homes were demolished. Damages were high. Of the houses and mobile homes still left standing 943 were in need of repair. Property damage was estimated at $50 million.
Mr. Osbourne, Sr. is typical of the tragedy that occurred that Saturday morning. Most of the victims and their surviving families had very little warning of the tragic events. There had been rumors for years that the dam was going to break, but no one paid much attention to them. In 1967, when the 1st impoundment at Buffalo Creek failed, the citizens were worried, but the 2nd impoundment built a few hundred yards down stream from the 1st was able to stop the rushing waters. There was no loss of life or property in that break. Very shortly after that the people of Buffalo Creek went back to business as usual. Even when Pittston built the behemoth 3rd impoundment that dwarfed the other two in comparison, no one seemed worried.
Over the next few years, some citizens did worry though. A few who lived closest to the dam and a few who worked on or near it, began to think that it might break. As the water rose closer and closer to the top of the dam, their concern began to grow as well. And on that fateful Friday night, there was a small number who huddled in the schoolhouse in Laredo, because of the reports of a few of the men that the dam was imminently in danger of breaking .
In fact, even some employees of Pittston knew that there were serious problems with the dam. Efforts went on all night to relieve the pressure on the dam and to shore up the top of the dam that was in danger of being breached by the rising water. At least one worried citizen called the sheriff’s department to let them know about the impending disaster. The sheriff dispatched two deputies to start to warn residents about the danger. But the deputies were turned away by a Pittston employee.
When the dam finally did break, most residents were either asleep or eating breakfast. Some never knew what happened, others had only minutes to try to scramble to higher ground. Even those at the schoolhouse in Laredo had to run for their lives. The schoolhouse was destroyed but all those inside made it to higher ground.
Most of those who perished, died instantly. Either they drowned or were fatally injured by the debris that was forced down the creek bed. There were very few seriously injured, survivors. This was fortunate because the relief efforts were delayed by the massive destruction itself. It was hours before the first relief efforts could reach the survivors. Most of the survivors relied on the goodness of the few neighbors who lived high enough up on the hillside, or far enough up some of the side hollows to have not been affected by the flood waters. The few who were seriously injured, were loaded into 4 wheel drive vehicles and started out to the nearest facility, Man Appalachian Regional Hospital. The 10-15 minute trip took most of the rest of that day, because of mud-slides and debris.
Like any other disaster, the first hand accounts of the people who survived are filled with statements about being unable to describe the devastation, or using terms about every day life to describe something so surreal. One survivor described