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Historian John Alexander Williams once wrote: "In West Virginia, history often repeats itself. Perhaps the fact that our history is so painful explains why it is so poorly understood."

Taking these words to heart, we set out to remember and re-examine the 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster on its 25th anniversary.

The disaster had such far-reaching effects, we wanted to approach it from several different angles. Choosing a victim, a lawyer, a psychologist, an environmental inspector, and a rescue worker, the staff unlocked important lessons, vivid memories and a lot of tears.

Interviewers were somewhat surprised at the range of emotions displayed all these years later, but as we soon learned, 25, 50 or however many years later, those who were touched directly or indirectly by the horrible black waters will never forget. And many will never forgive.

In addition, we wanted to examine the chances of history repeating itself. Coal-waste impoundments several times larger than Buffalo Creek still dot Appalachia, particular West Virginia, but new laws, brought on by Buffalo Creek, are now on the books. The experts say the people in the coalfields are safe, but for many years prior to the flood, those same words rang through the hollow known to history books, law journals and environmental studies as Buffalo Creek.


The Series:
Sunday, Feb. 23
The disaster revisited; the legal battle.

Monday, Feb. 24
Dr. Robert Kerns discusses "disaster syndrome."

Tuesday, Feb. 25
Environmental inspector Jack Spadaro recounts the disaster investigation.

Weds., Feb. 26
Carol Hoosier, who lost her parents in the raging water, tells of the fateful day.

Thursday, Feb. 27
Nelson Sorah, then a reporter and National Guardsman, recalls the cleanup.

Friday, Feb. 28
Lawyer Gerald Stern, who won the first case against the coal company, recounts what it took to win.

Saturday, March 1
Gazette Editor Jim Haught recalls the puzzling decisions of mining superintendent Steve Dasovich and Gov. Arch Moore.

Sunday, March 2
Buffalo Creek today; the coal-waste and earthen dams that still dot West Virginia. Could it happen again?

Tuesday, March 4
Editorial: Buffalo Creek:
Never forget disaster

Additional content:
Charleston Gazette's original coverage of the disaster

Report of the Citizens Commission on Buffalo Creek

Chapter from 1974 dissertation by Gazette reporter Paul Nyden

Related Web sites

The Project Team

Reporters: Jack McCarthy, Maryclaire Dale, Sandy Wells, Ken Ward Jr., Rick Steelhammer, James A. Haught, Robert J. Byers

Photographers: Lawrence Pierce, F. Brian Ferguson, Chris Dorst

Graphics: Alex Morgado

Project editor: Robert J. Byers

Design editor: Charles Reilly

Web editor: Dan Radmacher

Sunday, Feb. 23:
A man-made disaster
Twenty-five years ago, a dam washed away the lives of 125 people

Families cannot forget the day when their worlds were turned upside down.


After the flood, the legal battle began

Dennis and Margie Prince ran toward the hillside when they saw a roof careening down Buffalo Creek the morning of Feb. 26, 1972.

Monday, Feb. 24:
'Disaster syndrome'
Psychologist recalls the feelings of the survivors

In the wake of the Buffalo Creek catastrophe, psychiatrists, psychologists and pastors converged on the ravaged valley to help survivors cope with the emotional havoc that follows enormous tragedy.

Tuesday, Feb. 25:
Agencies failed to protect people, inspector recalls

In 1972, when the Buffalo Creek disaster occurred, Mount Hope native Jack Spadaro was a 23-year-old engineer teaching at West Virginia University's School of Mines.

Wednesday, Feb. 26:
'People felt guilty because they were alive'

Survivor speaks of losing her parents

At first, Carol Hoosier said she did not want to discuss the Buffalo Creek disaster and what it did to her family.

Thursday, Feb. 27:
Beyond comprehension

Buffalo Creek devastation 'indescribable'

Nelson Sorah saw Buffalo Creek through the eyes of both a reporter and a National Guard officer.

Time doesn't erase horror's images

Twenty-five years to the day after he and his family scrambled up a Logan County hillside to escape the killing waters of Buffalo Creek, images of the man-made disaster remain vivid for Delegate Arley Johnson, D-Cabell.

Friday, Feb. 28:
Suit against Pittston broke legal ground

Memphis native Gerald Stern worked as a lawyer in the civil rights movement after law school, then joined Arnold and Porter, a top firm in Washington, D.C. He was 35, assigned to the firm's pro bono section, and a little bored when the Buffalo Creek case came his way.

Saturday, Mar. 1:
Decisions on disaster puzzling

A quarter-century ago this week, the world got a sickening lesson in what an unsupervised industry could do to defenseless families.

Sunday, Mar. 2:
Buffalo Creek: Changes lie just below the surface

PARDEE - Stray dogs roam the barren upper reaches of Buffalo Creek. Peering from beneath the shelter of the long-deserted tipple, they offer a slow, wary wag to cars passing along the narrow road.

Coal dams still loom over W.Va.
State has 232 coal waste dams, but safety is much improved, most of the experts say

SHARPLES - At first glance from the valley floor, it looks like any other Logan County hill.

Conventional dams also pose problem

SALEM - The concrete spillway on the Lower Salem Dam is riddled with cracks. Steel support beams push out from the sides of the walls, which bend from the weight of surrounding earth.

Charleston Gazette's original coverage of the disaster

Page images from February 1972 issues of the Charleston Gazette
(click on images to see larger versions):

Feb. 27, 1972
Page 1A

Feb. 28, 1972
Page 1A

Feb. 28, 1972
Page 1B

Feb.29, 1972
Page 1A

Feb.29, 1972
Page 3B

(Due to limited resolution of these scans, the text of stories is not legible)

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Report of the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the Buffalo Creek Disaster

Full text
Scanned pages from the original report

Dissertation chapter on Buffalo Creek by Gazette reporter Paul Nyden

Gazette investigateive reporter Paul J. Nyden spent about two weeks talking to people from Buffalo Creek during the month after the 1972 flood. At the time, he was working on a dissertation about rank-and-file reform movement in the United Mine Workers union.

Nyden completed his dissertation, "Miners for Democracy: Struggle in the Coalfields" in 1974 and received a Ph.D. from Columbia University. The section he wrote about the Buffalo Hollow tragedy, part of a chapter about coal mine safety problems in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is available here.

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Related Web sites:

West Virginia Library Commission
Metro Valley Buffalo Creek page
West Virginia Division of Environmental Protection
Mine Safety and Health Administration
Office of Surface Mining

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