Dave Peyton
February 25 2002

Those children are with us today Buffalo Creek was both horrific and preventable

Sometimes the voice in my head tells me to give it a rest. Forget about Buffalo Creek.

"Just be glad it didn't happen to you," it says. But the voice is wrong. It DID happen to me. Simply stated, it defined who I have become.

I found out last year that the Buffalo Creek disaster was a defining moment as well for Bob Weaver, editor of the online Calhoun County newspaper, the Hur Herald, at hurherald.com.

Both our moments involved children. Both of us were in the hollow following the disaster. Both of us wept at what we saw.

Weaver had just left his National Guard unit in Spencer, the 1092nd Engineers. The unit was activated to help with the cleanup. Though not obligated to do so, Weaver left his funeral home in Spencer to follow the Guard unit to Man at the mouth of Buffalo Creek in Logan County.

I was with a group of journalists and photographers from Huntington who flew to the area the day after the disaster.

Weaver worked at South Man Elementary School in a basement embalming room.

I didn't know nor did I meet Weaver at the time. I was outside the school on the streets of Man looking into the hollow eyes of the living as they walked aimlessly along the streets of Man, too tired and too shocked to be angry.

A wall of mud and water from a coal slag dam at the head of the hollow broke on the morning of Feb. 26, 1972, killing 125, injuring hundreds more, destroying hundreds of homes and bringing an end of a way of life on Buffalo Creek.

Weaver wrote about his defining moment this way in a column last August:

"Helping Duke and Jim embalm, I began to stare into the faces of lifeless bodies of the young and 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 kneeled on the concrete floor of the school gym. Reposing on an army surplus litter was the embalmed, lifeless body of his eight-year-old son. It was February 1972 and Pittston Coal, America's largest independent producer at the time, said the disaster was an 'act of God.'

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

"The father embraced the child, clutched him to his chest and rose slowly to his feet. Incoherent words, sobbing and crying, he became lost in the pain of the moment. . . . A state cop 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 Logan County hill. In slight view, he sat down under a barren tree and began to speak to his dead son. I must tell you, trying not to show emotion, I went to my cot in an upstairs classroom. . . .When I returned to the gym, the child had been returned."

It was the sight of the surviving children in the refugee center at Man High School that changed my life. Many had lost both parents.

They sat on their cots, unable to move or do anything unless someone assisted them. Their eyes reflected a mixture of abject sadness and incalculable terror.

They had lost their families, their homes, and their toys. They lost everything in a totally preventable nightmare of water, mud and death.

I watched them pull dead bodies out of the cold Ohio River following the collapse of the Silver Bridge at Point Pleasant in 1967. The night of the Marshall plane crash in 1970, I walked among the bodies at the crash site.

But Buffalo Creek is the only one of the three tragedies that still speaks to me daily. And it will until I die.