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Remembering 50 years since the Buffalo Creek disaster that killed 125 people

A dam broke spilled hundreds of millions of coal slurry down the Buffalo Creek watershed.
A dam broke spilled hundreds of millions of coal slurry down the Buffalo Creek watershed.
Published: Feb. 27, 2022 at 3:17 PM EST
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LOGAN COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) - It is a day to remember for Logan County. The loss of more than 100 people in the Buffalo Creek disaster half a century ago but the people who live down Buffalo Creek Rd. still remember it like it was yesterday.

“I was turning 13, I was in the 8th grade,” said Karen Elkins.

A story told through the eyes of a woman, after 50 years.

“It was horrible just bodies everywhere houses torn upside down bridges bent,” said Elkins.

She remembers in the days before February 26, 1972 heavy rains moved through the area.

The dam and pond owned by Pittston Coal Company holding hundreds of millions of coal slurry, she describes as black murky water, broke. The water and chemical mixture spilled down the Buffalo Creek valley, sneaking it’s way between close mountains rising 30 ft. close to the dam where Elkins lives.

All of a sudden, 125 family members, kids in her classroom, and neighbors vanished.

Elkins thinks of the family she lost.

“I lost my niece or my first cousin, her two kids, a lot of neighbors around me they are all gone,” she said.

She said they had been asleep, blindsided by black flood water.

“The little boy I think it was,” said Elkins. “They never found him.”

Elkins thinks of the 21 days spent living in Man High School where she saw the list of people grow longer and longer.

“We would eat meals in the cafeteria and then they would post a sign everyday of who they had found,” said Elkins. “It is still just as fresh as it was yesterday you look out and you look for your neighbors that were once beside of you.”

The community knew all along the dam could bust.

“We had been told several times that the dam was going to break and we would run and we would go up Davey Holler and stay with some friends,” said Elkins.

Pittston called the dam break an ‘Act of God’ but investigators determined the dam had been poorly constructed. The state’s investigation into the disaster is filled with controversy. The state sued the company for $100,000,000 dollars but then Gov. Arch Moore agreed to a $1,000,000 settlement just days before leaving office.

WSAZ asked Elkins if she had a distrust of companies.

“It will never heal all through your life you will always remember,” said Elkins. “I don’t know exactly what happened to the dam but I know that we heard many a time that it was going to break and we would all run.”

Some memories of what happened at thirteen, the people she saw perish, just don’t go away.

“When it rains sometimes I want to hide because I think about it and all the times that we have run sometimes it scares me especially if there is a real bad rain,” said Elkins.

The community along Buffalo Creek watershed will never be the same again.

“It is just not the same anymore I can’t imagine life like it was,” said Elkins.

Over 500 homes were destroyed and 4,000 people were left homeless.

A service was held Saturday at Man High School to honor the lives lost.

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