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February 26, 1972 – The Buffalo Creek Flood

Posted February 26, 2009 12:00 AM by Steve Melito

On this day in engineering history, a failed dam in West Virginia resulted in 125 deaths and 1100 injuries in 16 coal-mining communities. In a matter of minutes, floodwaters from Logan County's Buffalo Creek demolished over 550 homes and damaged nearly 1000 more. The property damage, estimated at $50 million (USD), included scores of cars and trucks.

The 15- to 20-ft. black wave of water that rushed at an average of 7-ft. per second scarred more than just the man-made landscape, however. "I live up on a hill now", one area resident later told Kai T. Erikson, author of Everything in Its Path, "but that doesn't' take away my fear".

The Dams of the Middle Fork

During the 1950s, the Pittston Coal Company began dumping mine wastes called "gob" into the Middle Fork of Buffalo Creek. These wastes, a product of local strip-mining operations, consisted of dust, clay, shale, and low-quality coal. In 1960, the Buffalo Mining Company (a Pittston subsidiary) built a "gob dam" near the mouth of the Middle Fork. A second dam was added in 1966 and a third in 1972. By then, Pittston had become the largest independent coal producer in the United States - and known for its safety and environmental violations.

The Rains of February

The Buffalo Creek area was pounded by heavy, nearly-continuous rains in late February 1972. Pittston engineers measured water levels near the highest gob dam, but company officials refused to warn local residents to evacuate. On the morning of February 26, a heavy-equipment operator discovered that the Middle Fork's waters had risen to the crest of the dam, which was now was "real soggy". At 8:05 a.m., Dam No. 3 collapsed. Rushing water obliterated the other two coal slurry impoundments. Approximately 132-million gallons of blackish wastewater rushed through the narrow Buffalo Creek hollow.

Act of God or Act of Man?

Four days before the Buffalo Creek Flood, a federal mine inspector had declared the condition of Dam No. 3 to be "satisfactory". In the wake of this tragedy, however, three separate commissions found that Buffalo Mining had ignored standard safety practices. Pittston officials called the flood an "Act of God", but a disabled miner from the Buffalo Creek area saw things differently. As the Rev. Charles Crumm explained to the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the Buffalo Creek Disaster, "I never saw God drive the first slate truck in the holler".

Resources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buffalo_Creek_Flood

http://www.wvculture.org/history/buffcreek/bctitle.html

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#1

Re: February 26, 1972 – The Buffalo Creek Flood

03/01/2009 7:55 PM

Thanks for reminding us of this tragedy Moose. It is unfortunate that people, company's, and the government forget. We still experience tragedies like this to the day.

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#2

Re: February 26, 1972 – The Buffalo Creek Flood

01/14/2010 12:55 PM

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Re: February 26, 1972 – The Buffalo Creek Flood

01/14/2010 2:50 PM

thats awesome... but belongs in Commercial...

but thanks.

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