On Feb. 26, 1972, an earthen dam in Logan County's Buffalo Creek collapsed after heavy rain, unleashing a flood of 130 million gallons of water, sludge and debris through 16 coal mining towns.
The state sued Pittston Coal Co. for $100 million, but in the end, then-Gov. Arch Moore accepted a $1 million settlement and left the state with $13 million in unpaid cleanup bills. The Register-Herald reports that officials from the company called the flood an "Act of God." Survivors received payouts from civil suits in the low thousands.
This weekend, survivors and others gathered at Man High School to commemorate the disaster. The event hosted by the Buffalo Creek Memorial Library featured a slideshow, as well as a reading of the names of those who died in the flood.
On Saturday, Bill Owens remembered the day a wall of water and debris swept away his town, killing five of his family members.
Now 54, Owens recalled the morning his family awoke to the sound of rushing water that pushed their house into another. While they moved upstairs to avoid the water, the current eventually broke the house into pieces, leaving Owens and his family in the water, fighting to get air.
The memories still cause Owens pain, he told the Charleston Gazette.
"This is the first (memorial) that I've been to," he said. "That's how hard it is for me."
The memorial's organizer, Billy Jack Dickerson, said it isn't meant not to open old wounds but to remember loved ones who were lost. Dickerson, a science teacher at Man High School, has been collecting photos and information about the disaster for around seven years. The Lundale native was 10 years old when the disaster struck.
"These people are not a list of names in a book," Dickerson said. "They're not names in some story. They are friends. They are loved ones. They are neighbors and classmates. That's who they are."
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin also remembered the disaster in his weekly column. Tomblin was a student at West Virginia University in Morgantown when the disaster took place.
"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," Tomblin wrote. "The Buffalo Creek disaster should always be commemorated, for it forever changed West Virginia."
Tomblin also said the disaster showed the "incredible resiliency of West Virginians."
"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."