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Death at Buffalo Creek

Death at Buffalo Creek:  An Excerpt

Editor’s Note: In this 2,000-word excerpt from Death at Buffalo Creek (W.W. Norton), coal miner Robert Albright, who had already lost a son to the Vietnam War, describes how the coal-mining flood killed his wife, Sylvia, and his son, Steve.

 

[Page 92]  While Oldie Blankenship fought for his life at Italy Bottom, forty-two-year-old Robert Lee Albright was struggling frantically to reach his family in Lorado.  Albright, a soft-spoken, bespectacled coal miner, had finished his hoot owl shift at Buffalo Mining’s No. 8B mine around 7:45 and then, as usual, had climbed aboard a mechanized coal belt for the mile-long ride out of the mine.  The trip on the rumbling, electric belt would take about fifteen minutes, and then Albright would jump in his car and head home for breakfast.

After twenty-five years in the coal mines around Buffalo Creek, Albright knew every phase of the mining operation.  Beginning as a novice coal loader in 1946, he had worked his way up through the ranks.  By 1972, he was making $42.80 a day as a skilled electrician – and the bosses, respecting his obvious expertise, were allowing him to work almost as many hours of overtime as he wanted.

It was a good life, nothing like the terrible years of poverty which Albright had endured as a child.  The son of a lifetime coal miner who raised eleven children on his skimpy wages, Albright knew what it was like to struggle along from day to day, always short of money.  The Albright kids had not gone hungry (“Potatoes and beans, that was it!”), but Robert had quit school after the sixth grade mainly because “You didn’t have no clothes decent to wear.”  As he learned the hard lessons of poverty, the young Albright swore that he would do a better job of providing for his own family.

He did.  Nowadays, the Albrights – Robert, his wife Sylvia, his seventeen-year-old son Steve, and his newly adopted baby, Kerry Lee – lived in a warm, well-furnished home in upper Lorado, a few dozen yards above the schoolhouse.  The family drove two cars, ate steak whenever they wanted it.  And in a few months, Robert would be sending his son, a talented saxophone player, off to study music at Fairmont State College.

All in all, Robert Albright considered himself better off than he had ever been.  He had suffered some terrible disappointments along the way, of course: the death of his oldest son (killed inVietnamin 1970) was still a daily source of pain.  The boy’s death had been almost more than Sylvia could stand.  Plunged into a deep depression, she had finally required hospitalization for a time.  Lately, though, taking care of the new baby they had adopted to help fill the vacuum, she seemed to be regaining her enthusiasm for life.

There were other problems.  After twenty-five years underground, Albright’s life in the coal mines was beginning to take its physical toll.  Since 1963, he had been drawing disability benefits for the bad case of silicosis which made his breathing painful and difficult.  Only a few weeks ago, the doctors had also determined that Albright had miners’ pneumoconiosis – black lung – and had certified him for additional benefits.  But he kept on working.  He felt that he and Sylvia were “Living for them two boys, they was our whole life,” and he had been glad enough to sacrifice his health for them.

Friday night’s hoot owl shift had been colder than most, but otherwise routine.  Working with his helper, a fellow-miner named Tunis Sipple, Albright had spent most of the shift repairing a malfunctioning coal loader.  Halfway through the shift, he and Sipple had paused, fired up an old welder which they used to keep themselves warm, and eaten the lunches they carried in their tin pails.  After the half-hour break, it was back to work.  The wiring problem inside the coal loader was the kind of challenge Albright enjoyed.  It was part of the reason he preferred coal mining to other jobs.  Whenever he thought about doing some other kind of work, Robert remembered his ill-fated experiment of a dozen years ago, when he had left West Virginia to take a job in a Dunkirk,Indiana, bottle factory.  The work was boring, endless (“Seemed like it took your shift forever to go by!”), and after only two months, Albright had repacked his bags and returned to Buffalo Creek.  The coal mines might be gloomy and dangerous, but at least they offered a variety of jobs and challenges.

Now the belt rattled through the underground darkness.  Albright lay on his back staring at the roof of the mine as he was pulled toward the surface.  Idly, he wondered if his family would be waiting in Lorado to greet him.  Steve and Sylvia had planned to drive up to a band concert at Morris Harvey College in Charleston that morning, but the heavy rain might have meant a last-minute postponement.  Robert figured, as he rode the vibrating belt a few yards from Tunis Sipple, that they were probably still at home.

Suddenly, the belt stopped.  For a moment, he lay motionless in the dark, half-expecting it to begin turning again.  But nothing happened.  As Albright and Sipple climbed off the belt and began a half-mile walk back to the portal, they discussed the sudden power shutdown.  Robert had never seen it happen before.  The failure was irritating, but Albright knew nothing of the problem at the Three Forks dam, and made no connection between the two.  Emerging from the mine portal at a few minutes past eight, he jumped into his lightning-yellow Gremlin and began the ten-minute drive out of the mountains and down the hollow toward home.

Entering Buffalo Creek Hollow at Pardee, Albright was stunned at what lay before him.  The hollow had become a funnel through which thirty feet of black water went plunging along, taking out every structure in its path.  He gripped the steering wheel.  One by one, the homes along the road were being flattened.  Already, the water had torn the Pardee electrical station out of the ground – hurling sparks and flame high in the air – and sending its giant transformers bouncing down the hollow.  Trapped helplessly in his car, Albright prayed that his family had gone to Charleston for the band concert after all.  If they were still sitting in the house at Lorado and had received no advance warning, he knew they were doomed.  Bolting out of the Gremlin, he began to fight his way along the rugged hillsides above the hollow.  It was more than half a mile down to his house at Lorado.  Ignoring the pain in his lungs, he battled through the thick, tangled scrub.  But his heart sank inside him.  Already, he knew he was too late.

The Albrights, as it turned out, had received no warning.  Seventeen-year-old Steve was standing in the backyard when the water arrived.  He raced back inside the house, and a moment later emerged with his mother, who carried nine-month-old Kerry Lee in her arms.  Desperately, the three fought their way through the rising water, almost reaching the hillside which stood a few dozen yards behind their house.  But they had started too late.  The water rose to their waists, then to their shoulders.  The current began to push them down the hollow.

Neighbors who survived the flood later described a pathetic scene: Sylvia standing almost at the bottom of the slope, swinging the baby back and forth through the air, trying to find the strength to throw him up to the crowd on the hill.  Finally, the child dropped out of her arms, and in clear view of the horrified people above all three were swept away.

A few minutes later, reaching his own neighborhood at last, Robert Albright had his worst fears confirmed.  Everything was gone.  Only the bare foundations remained to show him where his house had been.  The main wave had passed through Lorado by now, but the water was still shoulder-deep in most places.  Albright plunged in.  He would swim his way out to where his house had stood.  Somehow, he would save them yet.  Fighting his way across the torrent, he soon tired to the danger point.

Floundering, choking on the water and the coal-black sludge, he was close to drowning when some men standing on a nearby bank finally threw him a telephone wire.  He pulled himself out of the flood on the rescue line, paused to recover some of his strength, and then began asking neighbors if any of them had seen his family.  A few minutes later, his last hopes were dashed: the baby had been found wedged in a culvert, face-down, about 100 yards below the house.  Had his family gone to Charleston after all, Robert knew they would have first dropped Kerry Lee off at his sister-in-law’s house, out of the danger area.

Moving slow as in a dream, the numbed Albright limped to the nearby hose where they had taken Kerry Lee.  The little boy was in bad shape.  “He was coal-black all over, he looked just like a tar baby.  He had a whole patch of skin tore out of his head, and his leg was cut to pieces.  They had been working on him – trying to get all that gob out of his throat.”

But then a wonderful thing happened.  The baby, which had not made a sound since his rescue, began wailing the moment Robert picked him up.  It was a strong cry, and Kerry Lee kept it going.  Albright figured the battered child would live – if only he could get him to a hospital in time.

Climbing into a neighbor’s four-wheel-drive truck, with the baby wrapped tightly in a blanket, Albright began a four-hour nightmare.  The only road out of the hollow was blocked by a rock-slide.  Albright was forced to sit helplessly in the truck while they cleared the slide, even cutting several trees out of the way.  Every once in a while they had to get out and walk while the truck was pushed through the rough spots.  “We were stumbling along in all this mud and rock.  I thought I was gonna break in two.”

Finally, they reached the hospital and the baby was rushed to emergency.  For three days, Robert did not once leave the child’s side, did not even change out of his grimy work clothes until, on the third day, friends brought him a fresh set.  Kerry Lee pulled through the crisis, and the story of his incredible escape quickly passed among the Buffalo Creek residents, who have referred to him as “The Miracle Baby” ever since.

His young son was out of danger, but the bodies of his wife and oldest son had been found, about 800 yards below the home in Lorado, and five days after the flood Albright would have to go down to the morgue to claim them: “My son was crushed up so bad, I went about four times trying to identify him.  His head was just smashed to jelly.  He had just a little bit of sideburn left, where you could tell it was him.  All the bodies had swelled up so bad, you had to just keep looking and looking. . . .”

Robert Albright had sacrificed much of his health to provide for the family he loved.  Now, with the oldest son’s death inVietnam, all the members of that family except for Kerry Lee were gone forever.  “It was just like a whole lifetime went with a snap of a finger,” Albright says. “I killed myself working up there in those lousy mines – but they only killed me little by little.  I tell you, if it wasn’t for that child, I wouldn’t be alive today.”

Albright gave up on coal mining.  Content to draw his $398 a month in disability payments, he can be found today in one of the temporary trailer parks along Buffalo Creek.  He spends his days fixing the baby’s bottle, changing the baby’s diapers, and occasionally wondering, after all the years of work, what has happened to him.

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