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Book Proposal

October 3, 2011

The World They Lost

 

How the 1972 Buffalo Creek Flood Disaster Forever Changed Appalachia

                             A Book Proposal by Tom Nugent

Table of Contents

The Concept                                                   2

Narrative Structure:                                      4

            The Market: Who Will Buy This Book      5

The Competition                                            8

            Deadlines and Work Schedules                    9

Publicity                                                          9

          About The Author                                          10

 

            Author’s Publishing Resume             10

           

            Chapter Outline                                             12

 

            Sample Chapter One                         15

 

            Sample Chapter Two                                     21

 

 

The Concept

            Forty years ago next February (Feb. 26, 1972), the collapse of a huge coal-waste dam at the top of Buffalo Creek Hollow triggered a massive flood that killed 125 people, destroyed a dozen small towns, left more than 4,000 people homeless – and permanently altered the physical and social landscape of this once bucolic valley in southwestern West Virginia.

Tom Nugent told the story of the disaster in Death at Buffalo Creek (W.W.

Norton, www.amazon.com/Death-Buffalo-Creek-Tom-Nugent/dp/0393332217), a widely praised non-fiction book that recounted – hour by hour and day by day – the harrowing details of one of the worst disasters in American industrial history.

            The book was reviewed everywhere (including on the front of the Washington Post-Chicago Tribune supplement, Book World), and it would be the only on-the-scene book of investigative journalism to emerge from the disaster.  Death at Buffalo Creek eventually won for its author a $12,000 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

            Next February 26th will mark the 40th anniversary of the Buffalo Creek disaster.

            That rapidly approaching date raises a number of urgent questions.  For starters: What happened to the thousands of people who once lived along the twisting, 16-mile-long Buffalo Creek, and what became of their descendants?

            What became of the communities – small but thriving mining towns such as Lorado, Lundale and Braeholm – that once sent their children to public schools up and down the hollow?  What happened to the infrastructure . . . the roads, electricity, water, sewer, schools and a major regional hospital that was destroyed by the killer flood of ’72?

            All too often in American journalism, reporters hurry from one story to the next – without ever looking back to see what became of events that were once front-page . . . and without ever attempting to measure the long-term social impact of disasters such as the one that took place in Appalachia in 1972.

            In order to measure that impact, the author of Death at Buffalo Creek will soon be returning to the mountains ofSouthern Appalachia to find out what happened to the people whose world was shattered forever onFebruary 26, 1972.

            The World They Lost: How the 1972 Buffalo Creek Disaster Forever Changed Appalachia will tell the story of how the coal mining region ofWest Virginia was permanently affected by the killer flood.

            The book will trace out the lives of the government officials who allowed an unlicensed, unregulated coal-waste dam to kill 125 people, along with the coal company officials who were supposed to protect the citizens of Buffalo Creek and failed to do it.

            Most importantly of all, this book will tell the human stories of those whose lives were forever altered by the disaster that destroyed their community.

          The book will also examine the more recent history of Appalachia. . . while demonstrating in vivid detail how the same economic injustices that triggered the Buffalo Creek tragedy are still at work in this benighted region.  Only a few weeks ago, for example, Nugent published a major story in the Huffington Post documenting how unregulated “mountaintop removal coal mining” is destroying large sections of theAppalachians– the beautiful mountain region that was “America’s first frontier.”

            In the HuffPo story (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tom-nugent), Nugent described how more than 500 West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky mountaintops have been destroyed (with more 2,500 miles of Appalachian rivers and streams polluted as a result) by coal companies that simply rip the tops of mountains off with dynamite, in order to get at the rich coal reserves beneath.

            Like the disaster that wiped out Buffalo Creek Hollow 40 years ago, mountaintop removal mining is a compelling example of the economic exploitation that has destroyed vast areas ofAppalachiaover the years.  As Robert Kennedy Jr. – a passionate environmentalist who has often deplored the destructive impact of mountaintop mining – said in a recent interview: “West Virginiais the template for what happens when corporations take over democracy.”

Forty years after Buffalo Creek, Tom Nugent is going to return to southern West Virginia to find out what happened to the thousands of Appalachians who were caught up in the worst industrial disaster of their era – and how that critically important event changed the world of Appalachia permanently.

Narrative Structure

As The World They Lost unfolds chapter by chapter, readers will hear the stories of 40-50 different people who were caught up in the original disaster.  Their stories will detail what happened in the aftermath and tell how the survivors tried to resume their shattered lives.  (Please see Chapter Outline section, below.)  While describing what happened to survivors during the next four decades, Nugent will write a series of dramatically organized narratives. The book will also zero in on the impact of the disaster on the region as a whole.

The chapters of the book will be organized in geographical order, with each chapter focusing on a different town (Three Forks, Lorado, Lundale, etc.) and describing what happened to its former residents in carefully researched detail.

In order to tell the story of the disaster’s aftermath, Nugent will find as many of the survivors as possible – both in the Buffalo Creek region and elsewhere in the U.S.

He’ll also talk with government investigators, attorneys who were involved in litigation stemming from the disaster, elected officials, environmentalists and union officials and energy company executives and anyone else who has useful information about the disaster and/or its impact on the region.

A veteran investigative reporter who has often covered stories for the New York Times (the Oklahoma City bombing and corruption in the office of Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, for example), the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, The Nation and other publications, Nugent will examine court documents and interview witnesses involved in spill-related lawsuits . . . as well as congressional testimony from Capitol Hill and various other state and federal investigations.  (Nugent was able to use these kinds of tools effectively in Death at Buffalo Creek, where they were very helpful in pinpointing the causes of the disaster and in tracing out the sequence of events that led up to the catastrophic coal dam collapse.)

The Market: Who Will Buy This Book

 

The Buffalo Creek disaster spawned several books, but Nugent’s was the only hour-by-hour, on-the scene account of the disaster that also laid out the causes of the tragedy and tracked the response by federal and state governments.  Death at Buffalo Creek also described the lawsuits that flowed from the catastrophe and the penalties that were incurred by the Pittston Company, which had operated the dam and failed to properly inspect it or report on safety.  Nugent’s book documented how Pittston wound up paying a single $25 fine to the feds for “failure to file engineering plans” on the coal-waste dam that failed.  Nugent also reported in the book that Pittston’s liability insurers eventually paid settlements that emerged from the various lawsuits . . . and that these settlements, when totaled, provided each individual who had lost a family member with an average of only about $13,000 each.

Besides Nugent’s book, there were only a few others.  Probably the best known of these was sociologist Kai Erickson’s 1978 investigation into the psychological impact of the disaster, Everything in Its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood (1978), which studied the sociology of a major rural industrial accident.  Attorney Gerald M. Stern also published a history of the event, The Buffalo Creek Disaster, 1975, which recounted a major court case and liability settlement that emerged from the tragedy on Buffalo Creek.

Although there have since been a few regionally published books and a couple of TV documentaries on the impact of the disaster, no other account of the Buffalo Creek flood has been published.  The World They Lost will thus be a unique publishing event – in the way that it will seek to lay bare the multi-dimensional effect (economic, historical, political, etc.) of a mega-disaster on an entire region of the country.

A nonfiction book by a veteran journalist, The World They Lost will tell the compelling stories of dozens of people whose lives were deeply affected by the oil spill, while also describing the impact on the region and on Appalachia as a whole.  Such a book should be able to find many readers in this country and elsewhere.

As Nugent discovered while writing about West Virginia during the 1970s, stories of people struggling to survive a disaster like the one that occurred at Buffalo Creek are of compelling interest to many readers.  Some of the stories Nugent is gathering will literally be life and death, as survivors describe their struggles to cope during the decades that followed the flood.  There will be stories of people struggling for economic survival, psychological survival, and even physical survival (several suicides followed the event, 10 and even 20 years later) during the period that followed the 1972 tragedy in southern West Virginia.

Still other narratives in this book will focus on the struggles of government regulators and scientists, as they labored to understand the scope of the disaster and how to best ameliorate its effects.     By reporting on how the disaster affected these many different communities in the region and in the nation at large, the book could gain a wide readership.  As the overwhelming success of a perennial classic like A Night To Remember (Walter Lord’s action-packed story of the sinking of the USS Titanic suggests), readers are often drawn to books that involve them deeply in the personal struggles of ordinary human beings who are suddenly caught up in a struggle to survive major historical events.

If The World They Lost succeeds in becoming the “definitive” historical account of the long-term impact of the disaster at Buffalo Creek, it seems reasonable that many public and university libraries would be interested in adding the book to their collections.  The book might also attract many readers in the Appalachian states, which were most affected by the disaster.   During the past couple of decades, Death at Buffalo Creek has been used as a college and university textbook in many sociology, economics and history courses, and also at a number of law schools.  As a definitive historical account, The World They Lost might draw the same kind of audiences.  There are also film and television possibilities – since the tragic story of Buffalo Creek Hollow seems certain to go on reverberating through American history and culture for many years.

The Competition

During the past few months of reporting on the Appalachian mountaintop removal mining controversy (for the Huffington Post, the Michael Moore Blog and other publications) Nugent has been developing close contact with other regional journalists and also monitoring the local press carefully.  So far, there have been no reports that any other journalists are planning to write a nonfiction book of this kind.

This was also the case when Nugent wrote Death at Buffalo Creek.  Because he had spent several months reporting on the disaster for a major newspaper (the Detroit Free Press) in the months immediately following the event, he quickly gathered a great deal of information about all aspects of the catastrophe.  In the end, his was the only broad, multi-faceted report on the entire event – minute by minute, then day by day, then week by week – to have emerged from the disaster at Buffalo Creek.

Deadlines and Work Schedules

          Because some of the reporting for The World They Lost has already been completed, Nugent would require a little less time than usual to finish a book of 12 chapters and about 75,000 words.  A reasonable estimate on deadlines and work schedules might be:

Reporting and Researching:  Nov. 1, 2011 to Feb. 1, 2012:  three months

       Writing/Follow-up reporting Feb. 1, 2012 to May 1, 2012:  three months

        Deadline for completed manuscript:  August 1, 2011

         As the reporting and writing unfold day by day, Nugent will file frequent updates to editors, per working arrangements.  As individual chapters are written, they will be submitted to editors for review and revision by Nugent.

Publicity

          As a veteran journalist and author, Nugent understands how important it will be to encourage news media interest in the book.  Having participated in numerous book tours (both as an author and as a reporter covering such events), he has a great deal of experience in this area and would be able to assist in setting up an extensive book tour and media appearances upon publication, and for an indefinite period after that.

About The Author  (Please See “Publishing Resume” at the end of this section.)

Tom Nugent is an author and journalist who has published more than a dozen books either under his own byline or as a participating writer.  Two of his nonfiction books were brought out by noted publishers W.W. Norton and Jason Aronson, and others have been published regionally (such as Breakthroughs in American Medicine, published in 2006 by Detroit Medical Center Press).

Nugent has written eight books for physicians or research scientists, and also several books for business clients.  Nugent is a former business writer at the Charlotte Observer and the Baltimore Sun and often wrote about business during his eight years as a national correspondent for People magazine.  Nugent also covered business stories and other news for four years as a contract reporter for the national news desk at the New York Times.  For the Times, Nugent spent many weeks traveling the Midwest and reporting on aspects of the Oklahoma City bombing, among other national stories.  Nugent has also written investigative stories for Mother Jones, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, The Nation and other publications.

Tom Nugent Publishing Resume

======
Tom Nugent
130 E. Clinton St.
Hastings, MI 49058
Office Phone 269-948-4235
Email tomnugent@sbcglobal.net

E  D  U  C  A  T  I  O  N
M.A. – Humanities, The Johns Hopkins University, 1980
National Endowment for the Humanities $15,000 Journalism Graduate Fellowship in the Humanities, University of Michigan, 1974-75
B.A. – English, Honors, University of Maryland, 1967

P  U  B  L  I  C  A  T  I  O  N  S
Among the books Nugent has published are:

Death at Buffalo Creek, W.W. Norton   1973.
An investigation into industrial causes of the disastrous 1972 flood in West Virginia.  Reviewed front page, Washington Post Book World and 30 other U.S. very positive U.S. reviews.  (The book was recently optioned to a major film producer.)

Working in the Countertransference: Necessary Entanglements, Jason Aronson, 2001

With Howard Wishnie, M.D.  Medical book on new treatment techniques in psychiatry, accepted by top science publishing house Jason Aronson.  Excellent national reviews.  Available at Amazon.

Breakthroughs in American Medicine, Detroit Medical Center Press, 2006, available on Amazon.

 

Now They Lay Me Down to Sleep: Anesthesiology In America, Gateway Press (now titled Truth, Lies, and the O.R.), 1995.  Still in print and available on Amazon.
With Fred Ernst, M.D.  A medical consumer advocacy book which outlines the potential perils involved in surgery and anesthesia.  Good reviews and feature stories about authors in 15 U.S. newspapers.

Desperation Medicine, Gateway Press, 2000, with Ritchie Shoemaker, M.D.

A 500-page medical text on treatment of neurotoxin illnesses. Good national reviews, especially in medical press.  Still in print: Amazon

 

 The Wow! Workplace, Terryberry Press, a book on employee recognition practices, 2008.  Excellent reviews inMidwest business press.  Available at Amazon.

 

You Might As Well Dance, novel, 1989, The Kerry Press.  Good reviews in Washington-Baltimore area.

Serial Publications:

The Nation

The New York Times

WashingtonPost

ChicagoTribune

PhiladelphiaInquirer

MiamiHerald

BostonGlobe

Los AngelesTimes

People Magazine (8 years as national correspondent, Washington)

Mother Jones

Stanford Magazine

PrincetonAlumni Weekly

Cornell Magazine

UniversityofVirginia Magazine

UniversityofChicagoMagazine

MIT Technology Review

Oberlin Magazine

UniversityofPennsylvaniaMagazine

Health/Medical Serial Publications

AAP News (AmericanAcademyof Pediatrics)

APA publications (American Psychological Association)

JohnsHopkinsMedical News (TheJohnsHopkinsUniversityHospital)

CornellUniversitySchoolof Medicine Magazine

Detroit Medical Center Publications, media consultant and author for nine hospitals,Detroit,Michigan

OTHER PUBLICATIONS

National Correspondent, People magazine, Washington Bureau, 1988-1996
Conducted celebrity interviews and covered high-profile news stories for the Washington bureau of People Magazine for eight years.

Feature Writer, Baltimore Sun, 1978-1983.
Met daily deadlines as a regular feature writer and reporter for the Baltimore Sun newspaper; won Emmart Regional Feature Writing Award; nominated for Pulitzer Prize 1980.

Journalism Teaching: Adjunct Journalism Professor, University of Maryland, 1980-94,

Taught news reporting and feature writing 14 years

The World They Lost: Inside the Worst Oil Spill Disaster in U.S. History

 

                                                Chapter Outline

Chapter One: Overview.  A history of the disaster; broad outlines of its

physical, psychological, economic, and sociological effects over the next 40 years.

 

Chapter Two: Three Forks: One-legged coal miner Leroy Lambert and his family escaped at the last moment. This chapter will explore what happened to them over the ensuing decades, along with the fate of several other families who lived close to the dam.  (Many lost members of their families.)

Chapter Three: Lorado.  Kerry Lee Albright, the “Miracle Baby” of the Buffalo Creek disaster, describes his extraordinary life.  Now 40, Albright is a veteranLas Vegas singer and dancer who has spent many years performing at night clubs, casinos and cruise ships all around the world.  Here Kerry Lee talks about his amazing journey from the backwoods of ruralWest Virginia to his current life as a nightclub performer inNew York City.  In this chapter, several other former residents of Lorado describe their lives since the disaster.

Chapter Four: Lundale.  Larry Owens was 22 years old when the disaster struck.  He managed to get his family to safety, then went back to the coal mines a year or so later.  In this chapter, he describes how the years have changed all of them: “It seems like some of the joy went out of living after Buffalo Creek.”

Chapter Five: Stowe Bottom.  Wayne Brady Hatfield, a “mountain of a man” and the grandson of famed “Devil Anse” Hatfield of the legendary “Hatfields and McCoys” feud along the West Virginia-Kentucky border lived for a dozen years after Buffalo Creek.  He spent those years as an angry critic of the coal industry inAppalachia, while frequently telling friends and neighbors: “The company can kill whoever they want.  What do they care – their insurance will pay!”

          Chapter Six: Braeholm.  Willard and Grace Adkins were elderly retirees.  When they were saved by a chance accident at the height of the flood, they gave the credit for their good fortune to “the Good Lord.”  Later they spent several years leading prayer groups and helping fellow Buffalo Creek residents who were worse off than they were in the wake of the disaster.   

Chapter Seven:  The Silver Fox Goes to Jail.  West Virginia Republican Governor Arch Moore, a shrewd and very popular politician, promised the citizens of Buffalo Creek that he would “sue Pittston and not rest until they pay at least $100 million for the death and destruction they caused in that hollow.”  In the end, however – and only a few days before leaving office at the end of his last term in 1977 –Moore worked out a secret deal with the giant corporation.  Pittston paidWest Virginia $1 million rather than $100 million . . . which then walked away from the disaster with its finances intact. Moore was eventually prosecuted for criminal malfeasance in the deal, however.  Convicted after a legendary trial inCharleston, he spent several years in a federal prison.

                    Chapter Eight: The Federal Response.  This chapter will document how the federal government first bungled the rebuilding effort along Buffalo Creek . . . while ultimately penalizing Pittston with a single $25 fine for its part in the disaster.  The chapter will also describe the cozy relationship between a board member at Pittston and his brother – who happened to be the U.S. Secretary of the Interior when the disaster occurred.  The chapter will also examine the continuing lax enforcement of strip mining laws and regulations regarding mountaintop removal mining inWest Virginia . . . along with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s failure to collect more than $500 million in delinquent coal mining fines during the past few decades.

                   Chapter Nine: For Pittston, Back to Business As Usual.  In this chapter, readers will learn how the multi-national industrial corporation that was responsible for the disaster has continued to take enormous profits out ofAppalachia since 1972 . . . while also continuing to ignore safety regulations and anti-pollution rules with impunity.

Chapter Ten: A World Destroyed.  This chapter will explore the region-wide impact of the disaster during the four decades since it happened.  This is a story of broken lives, shattered families, ruined infrastructure, and a regional community in which the natural bonds that should connect neighbors have been destroyed or significantly weakened.

Epilogue:  Wayne Hatfield’s “Ballad of Buffao Creek”  The epilogue will trace out the history of Appalachia since the days of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” back in the 1960s, while showing how the Buffalo Creek disaster was part of a general pattern of economic exploitation and government neglect that has greatly impoverished the once-beautiful world of the Appalachian Mountains.

 

The World They Lost

 

                    Sample Chapter One: From 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.

 

            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 around7:45 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 today, 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 leftWest Virginiato take a job in aDunkirk,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 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 atMorrisHarveyCollegeinCharlestonthat 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 toCharlestonfor 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 toCharlestonafter 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.

Sample Chapter Two: The “Miracle Baby” Turns 40

Four decades after he somehow survived the disaster at Buffalo Creek, Kerry Lee Albright looks back on his incredible life.

Brooklyn, New YorkWhen Kerry Lee Albright was only six months old, he went through a devastatingly traumatic experience that by all rights should have killed him.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the story of how they tried to throw me up on the hill,” says theBrooklyn40-year-old today.  “My mother, Sylvia, and my older brother, Steve . . . I know they fought desperately to save me.

“But they were exhausted, and the water was too much for them.  They threw me as far as they could – and then all three of us were swept away by the roaring water.  They died.  But somehow, I lived.

“Throughout my entire life, I’ve been known as ‘the miracle baby’ – and I’ve been told that there must be a reason why I lived, when so many others didn’t.”

It happened back onFebruary 26, 1972, when a 40-foot-high wall of water suddenly released by a coal-waste dam went crashing through Buffalo Creek Hollow in southernWest Virginia.  By the time the lethal flash flood subsided that morning, 125 residents of the narrow coal-mining valley were dead.  Another 4,000 were left homeless . . . and many were forced to spend the next 5-10 years living in “temporary” trailers that had been provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

For thousands of Buffalo Creek Hollow residents, that nightmarish event forever altered the landscape they had once called home.  With the main highway torn out of the ground in many places – and with the water, sewer and electrical systems completely destroyed – the survivors faced enormous challenges as they struggled to rebuild.  And their problems were only exacerbated by disingenuous government officials, both federal and state, who promised but failed to restore public services and support the ongoing effort to create new housing for the thousands who had been forced from the wreckage of shattered homes.

Suffering from numerous physical and psychological problems triggered by the disasters, more than a third of the valley’s 5000 residents left the region forever.  But Kerry Lee Albright and his father, Robert – the only survivors of their close-knit family – were among those who stayed on.

In many ways, the story of what happened to the “miracle baby” in the years that followed the 1972 cataclysm mirrors the stories of the other survivors.  It is a narrative full of pain and suffering and loss and grief . . . but it’s also a story full of courage and resilience and a keenly observant sense of humor.

Face-Down in a Culvert . . . and Dying

As you might expect, Kerry Lee Albright remembers nothing about that Saturday morning in 1972 that changed his life forever.

A mere infant at the time, he has no memory of how the raging floodwaters from the just-collapsed dam tore his green-shingled home at Lorado, West Virginia from its foundations and sent it spinning wildly down Buffalo Creek Hollow.

Nor does he recall the heroically desperate – and ultimately successful – efforts that were made to save his life.  In order to understand what happened on that dreadful morning 40 years ago, Kerry Lee has had to rely entirely on eyewitness accounts and newspaper descriptions of how his doomed family fought to save him.  He knows that his mother and his older brother managed to carry him from the collapsing house at Lorado almost to the side of a nearby hill . . . where a crowd of stunned and horrified onlookers watched the family’s agony in stricken silence.

He knows that Sylvia and Steve did their best to fling him up the hillside . . . but that their last-gasp attempt to save him from the torrent fell short.  Unable to escape, all three were swept into the merciless current.  Within a couple of minutes, the water dragged Kerry Lee – a naked baby whose diaper had been torn away – about 800 yards down the narrow, twisting hollow.  There it deposited him, face-down and helpless, in a culvert that flanked the raging torrent.

Kerry Lee knows that several survivors fought their way across the blackened, coal-ridden waters of Buffalo Creek in order to pull him from the current.  Struggling desperately, they then used their fingers to dislodge the oily-black coal waste from his throat and start him breathing again.

Ignoring the dead bodies that surrounded them, Kerry Lee’s stunned neighbors managed to find a woolen blanket somewhere.  They wrapped the infant up carefully, doing their best to keep him warm . . . then gave the precious bundle to the child’s father, Robert Albright, a veteran Buffalo Creek coal miner.  Albright had been en route to his home in Lorado – after working the overnight (or “hoot owl”) shift – when the water struck.

After retrieving the cut and bleeding baby, the desperate father spent the next seven hours fighting his way along washed-out, tree-covered roads, before finally getting the child into care at a hospital emergency room.

At first glance, the battered infant seemed unlikely to survive.  His right leg had nearly been cut off at the thigh; it was connected to his body by only a narrow band of lacerated muscle.  The baby was covered with deep flesh-cuts and black-and-blue contusions.  And he was also suffering from hypothermia, after spending nearly eight hours soaking wet, as the brooding winter skies continued to pelt Buffalo Creek with a mixture of heavy rain and wet snow.

But Kerry Lee didn’t die.

Instead, he became “the miracle baby” – a figure of local legend in the God-fearing, deeply religious world of southernWest Virginia.  In this conservative region ofAppalachia, dominated by fundamentalist Baptist and Pentecostal churches, fiery preachers proclaim the joys of salvation and the terrors of hell from a thousand pulpits every Sunday morning.

As soon as he could listen and understand what these “men of God” were saying, Kerry Lee was bombarded by endless sermons and homilies in which the “miracle” of his survival was presented as a shining example of the loving kindness of God.  He was also told again and again that he was “very special,” and that God “must have saved him so he could accomplish some important mission during his time on earth.”

It took Kerry Lee more than 30 years to come to terms with the mythology of his own life – with his anxiety-provoking legacy as a “miracle” who had been allowed to survive only because God intervened in his fate at the last moment.

From “The Holler” to Vegas: A Remarkable Odyssey

 

          After the debris from the killer flood was finally hauled away, Kerry Lee and his father resumed their lives at Buffalo Creek Hollow.  Robert Albright gave up on coal mining and chose to live on his $400-a-month disability payments as a miner who’d contracted a severe case of “black lung” during his years underground.

It was to be a strange and often painful existence.  Having lost his wife and his son Steve in the flood, Albright was also grieving for the death of his oldest son Terry – a U.S. Army combat soldier who’d been shot to death by a crazed fellow-trooper inSouth Vietnam, only a year or so before the disaster at Buffalo Creek.

To this day, Kerry Lee remembers how his father would buy a bottle of whiskey on “anniversary days” – the yearly reminders of Terry’s death in the war and the disaster at Buffalo Creek.  “Each year he’d arrange for a friend to take care of me,” says Kerry Lee, “and then he’d get into the whiskey.

“He’d drink all day long and cry a lot – and then he’d pull out of it and get back to normal.  It was just a ritual he insisted on, year after year.”

By the time Terry Lee entered high school, however, the stresses that had been created by Robert’s trauma were beginning to impinge on their relationship.  As the conflicts between them grew deeper, there were ugly scenes of hostility and struggle.

On one terrible afternoon, during a violent quarrel, Kerry Lee suddenly grabbed his father’s heart medication and shook the entire bottle of pills into his mouth at once.

“I shouted at him: ‘I want to die!’ Kerry Lee recalls today, “and I was shocked by his reaction.  His eyes had filled up with tears; all at once he was weeping openly.  I spat the pills out and told him I was sorry. That was the worst thing I ever did to my father, and I regret it to this day.”

Father and son somehow managed to get through their struggles, however.  Meanwhile, Kerry Lee had discovered that he was a talented singer – after a local choir director pointed out that he “had the best voice in the entire Amherstdale Baptist church.”  Within a few years, the youngster was starring as a singer and dancer in musicals at the local high school and at a nearby community theater.  That interest eventually led to a scholarship atMarshallUniversityinHuntington,West Virginia, where Kerry Lee would continue to shine onstage.

During the summer before his senior year atMarshall, he received an offer he couldn’t refuse: a chance to sign on with the American Entertainment Corporation as a singer-dancer at one of their permanent shows in a musical theater located at aNew YorkState ParknearBuffalo.

It was too good an offer to pass up.  Kerry Lee said goodbye to college life . . . and launched what would become a 20-year career as a traveling entertainer.  During his two decades as a singer and dancer, he’s performed for months at a time at major Las Vegas hotels (including the MGM Grand and the Excalibur), while also serving frequently as a shipboard entertainer for the Carnival Cruise Lines.  He’s sung and danced his way to a good livelihood . . . and spent many months living inGermany,France,England,Israel,IndiaandChinaalong the way.

Today, at age 40, he lives in a comfortable, ground-floor apartment in the Bushwick section ofBrooklyn,New York.

His father died of heart disease back in 2000.

“I’ve had a very unusual life, that’s for sure,” says Terry Lee today.  “I grew up almost as the prisoner of my own myth – the idea of me as a ‘miracle baby’.  Everywhere I would go, people told me that God must’ve had a plan for me.

“But I have a very different feeling about all of that.  I don’t think the ‘miracle’ – if there was one – was about me.  I think I survived so that I could comfort my father.  So that I could be with him and love him during the bleak years after he lost everyone he cared about.

“He lost everyone except me!”

[Editor’s Note: the rest of the Lorado chapter will tell several other stories of people who survived the disaster.]

                                      ###

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