SUNNY CAL JOURNAL - 1972 Buffalo Creek: Lifeless Bodies, Moments Of Clarity And A Curse

Moments Of Clarity Are Not What You Think, Learned Or Been Told, Not How You Want Things To Be, But Powerful Insight Into How Things Really Are

"Power is poison" - Henry Adams

By Bob Weaver 2002

I started writing this column because my friend, Charleston Daily Mail columnist Dave Peyton recently commented about defining moments in his life, more particularly the Buffalo Creek disaster which left 118 dead, seven forever missing, 1,100 injured and 4,000 homeless.

It was February, 1972 and Pittson Coal, America's largest independent producer at the time, said the disaster was an "Act of God."

I have continued to harbor memories and feelings of that disaster for many years.

Reporter Peyton was there, frustrated by Governor Arch Moore's ban on journalists, which lasted one week to prevent "irresponsible reporting."

I had just left my enlistment with the 1092nd Engineers National Guard unit in Spencer, as they were activated to help with the disaster, and I somehow felt compelled to follow them to the coal fields.

I left my funeral home in Spencer, telling myself I would assist with the embalming and do my part.

After the first night, playing a role in the basement embalming room situated in the South Man Elementary School, I too began a defining moment which has forever changed my views of politics. money and power in West Virginia.

Helping Duke and Jim embalm, I began to stare into the faces of the lifeless bodies of the young and the old, encrusted with blackened mud which had been difficult to remove by the "hose crew" in a tiny tent behind the school.

I looked into a father's face wrought with despair, choking back tears as he knelt on the concrete floor of the school gym to identify his son.

Reposing on an army surplus litter was the embalmed, lifeless body of his 8-year-boy.

A state policeman pulled the plastic sheet from the child's body, the ongoing ritual of identification as survivors came to claim their dead.

A few minutes before, James Lowrey, a Charleston mortician and myself had carried the victim up the basement steps and placed him in the long row, which eventually numbered 118.

The father embraced the child, clutched him to his chest and rose slowly to his feet, uttering incoherent words, sobbing and crying, lost in the pain of the moment.

Standing a few feet away, refreshed by a half-pint of peach brandy, I stared toward the man as he carried the child toward the outside door.

A state policeman started to stop him, and I said, "Let him go. He'll be back."

He took the child across the narrow driveway and ascended the steep wooded Logan County mountain.

In slight view, he sat down under a barren tree and began to speak to his dead son. Distraught, I went to my cot in an upstairs classroom and finished the brandy, a normal behavior for a practicing alcoholic at that time in my life.

When I returned to the gym, the child had been returned to the cot.

The words of Pittson Coal continues to ring, "The dam was incapable of holding the water God poured into it," despite the U.S. Department of Interior warning state officials in 1967 the dam had problems, along with 29 other impoundments.

West Virginia officials cited Pittson for failure to secure the dam, but never followed up.

Pittson's poor reputation for safety resulted in 5,000 violations at their sites, with fines levied at $1.3 million. They fought the citations, and paid only $275.

Today's incarnation of Pittson, Massey Coal, has been fined billions of dollars for safety and environmental offenses. They played a head turning game with culpable government officials, but finally reached a minuscule pay-off of a few million.

Later I learned, following the pouring rains in 1972, Pittson officials and workers monitored the ill-fated dam every two hours, concerned the impoundment was becoming "soggy."

They turned away two Logan deputy sheriff's who had heard there might be problems, all maintaining silence.

Pittson gave no warning when the water started pouring over the dam.

Residents of the long hollow with numerous communities felt there might be problems, and many took to the hill.

An Amherstdale resident said "I felt like you could reach out and slice the silence," before 132 million gallons of black waste water rushed down the valley creating a 15-20 foot wall of water.

Then, the most irresponsible, unconscionable statement was made by Governor Arch Moore: "The only real sad part is that the State of West Virginia has taken a terrible beating (clean-up costs) that is worse than the disaster."

He remained a sold-out leader, who was eventually jailed for taking bribes.

The clean-up costs of the disaster lodged against Pittson was $100 million dollars. A day or so before Gov. Moore left office, by executive order, reduced their responsible costs to $1 million.

The state's taxpayers picked up the other $99 million.

The governor announced the rebuilding of model replacement communities,that never happened. He announced the building of a modern expressway up the devastated valley. It never happened.

Moore made lots of announcements of things that never happened.

Moore had great political skills, promising and impressing, but he was often an empty promise=giver.

He still gets standing ovations at political gatherings, after being released from federal prison.

My embalming associates, after three days of work, "borrowed" a Jeep and went on an after-midnight tour of the destroyed valley.

I contemplated that night, driving around the twisted debris of Amherstdale, Lundale and Lorado, that that the cover-up had started.

Accountability was a dirty word and human life was not essential to corporate coal.

By the end of my stay, I had a moment of clarity, a turning point of conscience that Dave Peyton has described as a blessing with a curse, that never goes away.

The curse returns on the anniversary of the disaster, particularly recalling the faces of dozens of children in their lifeless bodies.

See A RETURN TO BUFFALO CREEK: 1972 - "Oppression Done Under The Sun"