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Remembering Buffalo Creek, 40 Years Later

From The Governor’s Desk: A weekly column by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin

Time heals all wounds, someone once said. Most wounds, perhaps. But there are tragedies so grave that the scars survive even the passage of decades. There are events so sorrowful that no matter how many years pass since their unfolding, each new anniversary brings the same sadly vivid memories as all the ones before.
February 26 marks the 40th anniversary of the Buffalo Creek disaster, one of the deadliest days in our state’s history and a tragedy whose sting is as fresh as the day it happened. I know that those who survived it, and the succeeding generations of survivors, never mark this date without the commemoration it deserves.

Like many West Virginians my age, I will never forget where I was on February 26, 1972. I was an undergraduate student at West Virginia University in Morgantown. The news seemed surreal; it was hard to imagine such destruction so close to home. Buffalo Creek was very familiar to me. In fact, it was less than 30 miles away on the banks of the Guyandotte River.

Growing up so close to the river, my family was all too familiar with floods. This particular flood, however, was unlike anything we had ever seen. The entire state and nation listened in horror as we learned the extent of the damage caused when that sludge dam on the Middle Fork of Buffalo Creek in Logan County gave way. That day’s flood swept a wall of coal, slurry, shale, and debris down the 17-mile-long valley. It washed away lives, homes, and families, some of whom were employed by the firm that owned the three dams at Saunders built to contain the waste by-products of coal mining.  Astonishing reports of destruction and loss of life came pouring in over local radio stations. Neighbors rushed to the scene to help family and friends, the skies filled with helicopters, and military trucks carried in National Guard troops to help with the rescue and the recovery.

The 132 million gallon flood claimed 125 lives, with hundreds of others seriously injured, 800 homes destroyed, 900 other houses and buildings severely damaged, and the community decimated. In the aftermath, investigations were conducted, court proceedings were held, and scores of books were written. But for all these exhaustive attempts at analysis, there is no such thing as closure for a tragedy like Buffalo Creek.
The story of Buffalo Creek is also the story of the incredible resiliency of West Virginians. That day West Virginians around the state set aside their differences and became one. The entire state instantly focused on helping the victims of this great tragedy. It has always taken a special kind of people and an extraordinary sort of toughness to make a life in these beautiful hills, and West Virginia’s response to the Buffalo Creek flood exemplifies what makes this state and its people great.

The Buffalo Creek disaster should always be commemorated, for it forever changed West Virginia. We have a responsibility to teach each future generation what happened and why, so that they cannot only reverently remember but make certain that history does not repeat itself.
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