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TOP STORY: Death, destruction, terror of 1972 Buffalo Creek Disaster still vivid

Jan. 15, 2009 @ 02:17 PM

HUNTINGTON — Edna Baisden (Short) and her husband, Sam Baisden, were in bed asleep at their Braeholm, W.Va., home on Logan County’s Buffalo Creek. It was Saturday morning, Feb. 26, 1972, and someone was knocking on their door.

Sam answered.

“The dam has broken; you had better get out,” he was told.

What did Short, now of Huntington, do? She went into the kitchen and put on a pot of coffee.

“We had heard that so many times,” she said.

The couple and their 18-year-old daughter, Marsha Baisden Workman, walked outside and looked up the road.

“I saw it coming across the railroad crossing about 200 feet above where we lived,” Short said. “It was like a monster, like something raising up.”

As the tsunami-like waters closed in, Sam Baisden did an odd thing. Ignoring his ‘67 Buick and his wife’s ‘68 Pontiac in the driveway, he hooked his beloved-but-inoperable antique Datsun, which was parked along the road, to Marsha’s car, which was parked in front of it.

“They risked both of their lives to get that antique car out of the way,” Short said.

But as the desperate drivers skedaddled down the road to the post office and made a U-turn so they could turn into an alley near home and race up the hill, Short went back in the house to retrieve the coffee pot before she fled.

“I was a-screamin’ at ‘em,” she said. “I didn’t know where they were at. When I stepped off the step onto the carport, the water was up to my knees.”

Short started running for the hill. She had just emerged from the water when she heard a neighbor, Emory Vanco, shout: “Edna, Edna, stand still!”

Live power lines were falling all around her. Finally, she heard someone say “We’re all right.” And her husband and daughter came back down from the hill to get her.

“We had no cups, but we stood there and drank coffee out of that coffee pot until it was empty and I threw it down,” she said. “We saw the water lift up our house. When the water set it down again, it just flattened out on the ground. The water was there, and then it was gone.”

About 50 people — including the Baisdens — stayed in the Vancos’ home on the hill that night. Many of them went hungry, but they were alive.

“What food there was they gave to the kids,” Short said. “There was nothing else left.”

Concerns over dam

There had been concerns that one of the three dams on the middle fork of Buffalo Creek would break.

Melvin Duba of Beckley, W.Va., is a retired mine foreman. On that fateful day, he was wrapping up the closure of Buffalo Mining Co.’s 8-1/2 mine, more than a mile above the dams. Then, he and fire boss Luther Browning jumped in his new Volkswagen Beetle and headed for the other side of the hollow, where they were expanding the 5A mine from two to four sections.

“Luther and I left the No. 5 office at 7:45 a.m., stopped beside the No. 3 dam and walked out on top of it,” he said.

Walden Mullins, the superintendent from No. 5 mine, and Steve Dasovich, the man in charge of Buffalo Mining operations, were there.

“We all stomped on the dam and said  ‘This is going to hold; there’s no way it can break,’ ” Duba said. “We looked around a few minutes, got back in my Beetle, went down the hill past all three dams and started up the hill on the other side.”

All at once they heard an explosion. Instantly, the car was showered with black, nasty water.

“We jumped out to see what happened and saw the slate and water come rushing out of that hollow,” Duba said. “Then we knew the dam had broken. We watched it tear out a bridge and several houses. You talk about being thankful . . . “

Duba, Browning and other miners from 5A started walking out of the hollow — using the road where it wasn’t torn up and animal trails along the hillside where necessary. They surrendered their hunting jackets, overalls and other items of clothing to dazed survivors who had managed to outrun the water in their shorts and nightgowns.

“The devastation was horrible,” Duba said. “Horrible.”

Barbara Johnson of Huntington said Kelly Mountain, behind her home in Amherstdale’s Proctor Bottom, was too steep; she would never climb it.

On the morning of Feb. 26, her husband Charles Jr. had gone to the post office. She was alone in the house with their two youngest children, Jimmy and Timmy, ages 6 and 7. The other seven kids were in an adjacent home the family had purchased.

When neighbor Patty Adkins’ warning came, though, Johnson started rousing everybody.

“I put on my brown coat and green hat,” she said.

She carried Jimmy — who was ill with strep throat — with one arm, at her side.

“I RAN up Kelly Mountain,” she said.

Deborah Johnson Garrett of Huntington, one of Barbara Johnson’s nine children, had trouble waking up her brother Charles III.

“He slept like a dead man,” she said. “I beat him on his back and said, ‘Get up! It’s coming! I’ve seen the water!’ “

Out of time, she and her siblings fled.

From the higher elevation, they watched. Chuck apparently wasn’t as out of it as he had appeared.

“When that house went to rockin’ and rollin’, my brother, he got out of there — fast,” she said.

The aftermath

Donald L. Mills Jr. of Huntington was in Wayne County when the dam broke, but he and his family returned to the hollow about a week later. They spent several anxious days before finding that Mills’ brother Johnny had been spared. Then they went to see if their home in Latrobe was still standing.

“What we saw was another miracle,” Mills wrote in his book, “Magnolia Harbour Glimpses.”

“The C&O Railway had left a string of loaded hopper cars on the siding in front of the houses. ... The water had hit the cars full force and bounced off.”

The house was spared, but enough muck had gone under the cars to flood the houses and yards and require the wearing of boots.

“I remember stepping in our yard and pulling up one of my feet bootless,” Mills said. “The stuff was so powerful that it closed in and buried the boot on the spot.”

Floods of memories

Robert Shy of Chesapeake, Ohio, was a first lieutenant in the West Virginia Army National Guard when he flew helicopters up and down the valley delivering water and milk and picking up dazed and injured survivors. One couple had saved only their dog and a loaded shotgun — neither of which they wanted to surrender.

“You can’t take your shotgun,” Shy told the man. “What if it goes off in the aircraft?”

Finally, he struck a bargain.

“If you let me have the shotgun, we’ll take your dog,” he offered.

Deal.

“I unloaded it and gave it back to him when he got off,” Shy said.

Rod Hall, now of Kernersville, N.C., helped the Red Cross get food and clothing to stranded victims.

“One thing I noticed was that all the snakes tried to reach certain dry spots or islands in the swollen creek beds,” he said.

Cheryl Rorrer Reynolds was at home in Huntington, but her father, Millard Rorrer, was driving toward the dam when a woman flagged him down. He took her home and barely got up the hill behind his company store at Becco before the water churned by.

“It just broke your heart to see firsthand the devastation that water could do,” Reynolds said. “Roads weren’t where they used to be, nor were houses. Railroad rails were twisted, cars were everywhere, bridges were on the roads instead of over the creek.”

Debbie Gorgia Jude of Barboursville saw mobile homes come floating down on top of the water at Amherstdale and collapse.

“We saw our house start moving off its foundation, but it lodged between two trees and stopped,” she said.

Jim Piccirillo of Valencia, Calif., had stayed at a friend’s house that Friday night after attending the Man vs. Chapmanville basketball game.

“Twenty-four hours later, I was back in that gym — which by then had become the command center and temporary morgue for victims,” he said. “I watched people covered in black, oily mud stumble in, dazed and confused.”

Moving on

Incidentally, Marsha Baisden Workman, who now lives at Robinette, a couple of miles from her parents’ old property, picked up that coffee pot and still has it. And it still works.

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