EDITOR’S NOTE: February 26, 2022, is the 50th anniversary of the Buffalo Creek Flood in Logan County, West Virginia. The flood killed 125 people and left 4,000 homeless when a poorly constructed coal-waste dam owned by the Pittston Company collapsed at the head of Buffalo Creek. Mimi Pickering, who will attend a commemoration of the disaster Saturday, directed two documentary films on the flood and its aftermath. Clips on this page are from Pickering’s “The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man” (1975) and “Buffalo Creek Revisited” (1985). The text below is from a personal statement that Pickering wrote in 1978 as part of a discussion guide. The Pittston Company has never admitted responsibility for the flood, calling the dam’s collapse “an act of God.”
I was at a meeting of the West Virginia People’s Party (it was short lived) in central West Virginia on February 26, 1972, when I first learned of the Buffalo Creek disaster. An hour or two had passed since the flood had swept through the Buffalo Creek community. Someone heard it on radio or TV –”A coal company dam has collapsed, thousands are affected, hundreds are missing and feared dead.” The reaction to this news from the people in the room was similar–shock, horror, anger, outrage. The meeting was quickly called to an end. Many people left for Buffalo Creek. I returned to Kentucky wondering what I could do.
Fearing that the governor’s committee set up to investigate the Buffalo Creek incident would not come up with a complete accounting for the events leading to the disaster, a group of concerned West Virginians formed the Citizens’ Commission To Investigate The Buffalo Creek Disaster soon after the flood. The Citizen’s Commission scheduled hearings on Buffalo Creek and asked me to put together a crew from Appalshop [a nonprofit media center based in Whitesburg, Kentucky] to film the proceedings. We had only a couple hundred feet of black-and-white 16mm film, a few blank videotapes, no money and little credit, but we felt it was very important to be there to document what went on.
We ended up spending several weeks in and around Buffalo Creek recording the hearings, videotaping interviews with survivors, and filming the destruction and cleanup operations (and in the process, having one crew member arrested and jailed for trespassing).
I was 19, almost 20, and had never before experienced anything like the chaos, confusion, and despair that engulfed the Buffalo Creek community in the first weeks after the flood. I hope I never do so again. It was incredibly difficult to have to ask survivors to talk about the disaster and to go out day after day to film such massive destruction. The experience of being on Buffalo Creek was physically and emotionally draining for all of us. I left the area feeling horribly depressed and wondering how we could use the film and video we had shot to tell such a difficult story, and where in the world we would get the money to do so.
I wrote a proposal and sent it to any foundation or group I thought might be interested in supporting the film. In the meantime, we returned to Buffalo Creek whenever we could and tried to come up with enough money and film stock or videotape to cover such events as the survivors’ trip to the stockholders meeting [of the Pittston Company, which owned the failed dam]. And I read anything I could find that had something to do with Buffalo Creek: government reports, the Congressional Record, university-conducted studies, magazine and newspaper articles, industry and citizen group newsletters, etc. Finally, when I was just about ready to give up hope of ever getting the project off the ground, the Abelard Foundation gave Appalshop a small grant to produce the film.
The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man took a long time to complete. It was a complex story to tell and a painful one to have to deal with. The film would have been impossible to make without the film footage, photographs, expertise ((especially that of Tom Bethell who appears in the film), and time donated to the project by people from throughout the region. We never really had enough money and that fact, together with the variety of film stocks and video formats included in the film and my own inexperience, led to a film of poor technical quality. I hope that those viewing the film will be able to bear with it and see past these difficulties.
I made this film about the Buffalo Creek disaster because I believed the story of what happened and why needed to be told. As I learned more about the events preceding the tragedy and the responses of [the Pittston] company and government officials afterwards, I became strongly convinced that the Buffalo Creek disaster was an outrageous example of an industry-wide attitude that places a greater value on profits and production than on the health and safety of coal miners, their families, and their communities.
Although the Buffalo Creek disaster affected more than those who mine coal, I do not believe it was an isolated incident. Rather, I see it as only one episode in an apparently unending series of mine-related disasters that periodically strike the coalfields. There have been over 20 U.S. mine disasters that have killed more than a hundred miners each. Added to these deaths are the more frequent mine fatalities that come in ones and twos. As of 1978, more than 120,000 men have died in the mines since the official death count began in 1839. [An additional 2,048 miners died from 1979 to 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.] There have been over 1.5 million serious mine-related accidents since 1930 alone. Even now in 1978, a miner is killed on the job on the average of once every other working day.
Yet, I do not believe it has to be this way. The technology is available to make mining safe for coal miners and the environment. Wales and West Germany are examples of other countries in which accident rates and environmental damages from mining have been greatly reduced for years. But the deaths in our mines and mining communities will not stop until the American coal industry is forced to take responsibility for its actions. Until that happens I believe there will be more Buffalo Creeks, more mine fatalities, and the people who live and work where the coal is mined will continue to pay its real costs.
I don’t think this film will change the attitude or practice of the coal industry. I don’t think a film can do anything of that magnitude. I only hope that the film will impart some knowledge, some understanding and insight, of the structure of power in Appalachia, and that it can provide a starting point from which to examine the rights and responsibilities of corporations, governments, and citizens in other coal mining communities and in our nation as a whole.
Mimi Pickering has been a filmmaker at Appalshop since 1971. In 2005 the Librarian of Congress selected her documentary “The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man” to be to be part of the National Film Registry. Pickering also manages Making Connections News, which produces and distributes radio reports about economic opportunity and innovation in Appalachia.