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Transcript of interview with Kai Erikson. May 17, 1993, for the film "West Virginia"

Source: WV History Film Project


Q: February 26, 1972, describe what happened in Buffalo Creek, West Virginia. Tell me about it.
JJKF 0049
KE: Buffalo Creek is a very narrow mountain hollow, about seventeen miles in length and along its length there is about sixteen very small, you can't even call them villages, hamlets would almost be the better word for it. And, at the top of the hollow there was a dam that was made-up entirely of refuge from mining operations, up at the top of the valley. And, it had already been constructed. It was just piled there. And, it had been raining a lot, in the day or two before the flood, and that dam just gave way. And, what made it so horrible was, it's not just that the water that was held by the dam went down the hollow, but the whole dam did, too. So, it became kind of a battering ram and it would pick-up houses and it would pick-up trestles and it would pick-up, you know, railroad cars and it would pick-up -- So the thing that went down the hollow was, it looked like a living creature, in the way that people described the "thing" coming. You know, very, very slow. Very deliberate. It looked as if it had a mind of its own and that mind had malicious intent and that it was after people. It's hard --

Q: OK. Just a second. Coal truck on the highway. OK, it's OK now. Continue.
JJKF 0182
KE: And in addition to all of that, it would come very, very slowly and deliberately down the hollow, but the hollow twists [like this,] so this "thing" would come down like, almost like a toboggan and it would go up one side of the hollow, as it made the turn and then up the other side as it made the turn. Which meant that it would take out houses, sometimes on one side of the creek, and leave others alone that were just a few feet away and at the same elevation. Which, again, made it look as if this "thing" was aiming at certain places, doing certain things, you know, the laws of physics explain all of that, but it certainly doesn't look that way when you are standing there, afraid for your life.

Q: This "thing," water, debris, what was that?
JJKF 0249
KE: Well, I guess the best, people described it as a "wall of water," but that really doesn't do it because it was just a great churning mass of all of the, of coal dust, it was pitch black, there was smoke coming out of it because this toxic kind of stuff. And, everything it had picked-up became a part of that mass. So, it was like a liquid battering ram and it moved like, I've never seen Hollywood movies of the "Blob" and things like that, but that must be, the kind of thing they are trying to capture. Something that moves very, it relentlessly and slow. And, because this wasn't a rush of water, it took a couple of hours for that, for that, for the front of that to flood. To make it down just those seventeen miles.

Q: What did it do to the homes lined along that creek?
JJKF 0331
KE: Well, it destroyed, in one way or the other, four out of five of them; it varied a lot. The higher up the Buffalo Creek you were, the greater the amount of damage, which is understandable. But, the towns at the top of Buffalo Creek were just wiped out, for all practical purposes. If a house remained, it was an isolated, you know, like one tooth left in an empty mouth. And, the further down the hollow than, the flood got more selective in the way I was describing before, taking out a section here and leaving a section there. Down towards the end, where the hollow kind of opens up a little bit, it became more like a conventional flood. A lot of houses got wet. A lot of houses were full of mud, as a consequence of this. But, the majority of them survived. So, basically, if you take about the top two thirds of Buffalo Creek, it was for all practical purposes, destroyed.

Q: Was there any warning to the people in time to escape?
JJKF 0422
KE: Some. But, the warning was very, very small. There were people who could see it coming and the slowness of the water was such, that once, the very alert people could alert neighbors quite, in front of them, but it meant, and then people could see it coming and still have time to move themselves. So that, you know, if you were looking out the window at the right time and you saw this thing coming, let's say a hundred yards up the hollow, you would have had time to gather your family, maybe get into the pick-up and get out. Or, at least, clamber-up the side of the hills. One thing about, a valley as narrow as this one, everybody is close to high ground, pretty quickly. Which meant that if you ran sideways and up the side of the hill, you could escape the flood coming down. But, it also meant that, that most of the people who survived, were just above it, they climbed, they clambered up the side of the hill and they were looking down at this horrible mess that I was just describing and not, no more than a few feet away.
JJKF 0521
So, they saw their neighbors being washed-off. They saw the whole, you know, all of the wreckage coming down. They saw the houses of people they knew just being bobbed like tops on the bottom of, being carried down the hollow. Worst of all, they saw people they knew who were caught-up in that and had no idea how to help them. It's a, I've, nothing like that has happened to me but you got, it's easy to imagine that must be the most helpless feeling on earth.

Q: Describe the loss of life and it's impact on a small community like Buffalo Creek.
JJKF 0576
KE: Well, loss of life is, loss of life is a very hard thing to measure because people always describe it as a percentage of people who were there.

Q: I'm sorry. Go ahead, start again.
JJKF 0600
KE: Loss of life is a difficult thing to, to talk about because newspapers are always describe it as a percentage of the people who were there. A hundred and twenty-five people were killed of the five thousand who lived there. And, that's a, you know, as wars go, as, you know, huge events go. But what made that death horrible was, those deaths horrible was that everybody in Buffalo Creek knew everybody else, at least by reputation, at least by face. So that, the, one hundred twenty-five deaths, when you know all the people, or know about all the people, reaches into the sinews of the community in a way that, let's say in a modern city, would not, would not be the case. So, it's, everybody on Buffalo Creek had a really close exposure to death. Both in the sense that they came close to dying themselves, but in the sense that they were close to somebody who had died and had died horribly.

Q: What is death on that scale mean to a small community, what does it mean to Buffalo Creek and the people that survived?
JJKF 0708
KE: It's hard to say what death on that scale means to a community. It, it means one thing if the community has an opportunity to rebuild and maybe to make something of the deaths, to make a memorial of the deaths that took place. Build some new life around it. They, you know, make pledges about what the future is going to be that are dedicated to these people. You hear of that happening a lot. But, on Buffalo Creek that wasn't even possible because the whole place had been wiped out. And, it wasn't possible just to go back up, I mean, the place was scraped clean, in certain parts. Clean, being a very bad word. It was scraped dirty, if there is such a thing. And, it meant that people, there was no way that people could go back, rebuild their lives, you know, dedicate their lives to the people who had been lost, which sounds, that sounds a little "Pollyannaish," but there are communities who, though they suffer from losses like that, also, profit in the sense that they make something of them.
JJKF 0799
But Buffalo Creek was, for all practical purposes, a dead place. It was like there was, the, most people who lived there felt that the life had gone out of it. Not just because so many people were dead, but because they were half-dead themselves. It's astonishing how many of the survivors, afterwards, described themselves as "half-dead" or as "dead." Because, if the community dies, it's hard to think of yourself as fully alive.

Q: Why is it more than just an isolated disaster? What are the deeper meanings for, say for West Virginia, for us here now? Why should we know about this event? Why should we be interested? Why should we pay attention to it?
JJKF 0873
KE: One of the things that really touched me and impressed me about the Buffalo Creek disaster was that West Virginia is one of the few places in the United States where community, in the old classic sense, still exists. Where there is a very strong sense of neighborliness, a very strong sense of, that those who live near you are almost like "kin," almost like family. And that was very much the feeling, up and down Buffalo Creek, as it is in neighboring hollows in Appalachia. So, the damage to a community that is, where the, kind of the social weave is so tight, it is much more gripping than just to a gathering of people someplace else. You know, if you took, say, if you took a suburb of Springfield, Massachusetts and you, and it was, and, and, and something happened to it, of a disaster of the similar size to the one in Buffalo Creek, it would be a very different thing because, network of "kin" would come in from outside to help restore things, there would be sources of solace elsewhere in the larger neighborhood.
JJKF 0973
But, this was a contained place and it meant that the people who were, who were deeply hurt by it, which was a lot of people, had no real place to turn because their normal place to go, was other people who lived nearby. And, everybody was affected. It's a, so this was, there are people who know a lot more about West Virginia that I do that make the point.

Q: Let's stop there. That's our ten minutes.
KE: OK. Kind of habits?

Q: What? Just.
KE: Yea. I, I, he, the reason he wants more is that I put my finger up there.
KE: I almost called for you right while the. Laughing.

156, WEST VIRGINIA ROLL 156. 156.

Q: Kai, tell me why the loss of community, in this particular place might have been so acute because of the importance of community to a place like Buffalo Creek, West Virginia.
JJKF 1045
KE: Well, there was a time when most of the people in this country, in most countries, lived in very small intimate communities where people had a very strong sense of attachment to each other and a very strong sense of attachment, you know, just to the physical parts of the land that they lived on. that land had been, they worked that land and their ancestors were buried in it and they expected their progenies to live on it. So that the attachment was really, just a physical closeness to the place itself. That sense has gone out of most parts of the United States and most parts of Europe, too. But, it remains strong in a few, in a few places and probably one of the strongest of those is in the West Virginia mountains. So what you see there, are communities very much like ones that, you know, kind of fiercely independent, but at the same time, very closely interwoven communities of a sort that just plain, they are very hard to find, nowadays, but modernity is wiping them out, changing the human mood about such things as that.

Q: If Buffalo Creek was the coal camp, what elements of a coal camp played themselves out in this disaster, in terms of it's impact on people?
JJKF 1166
KE: Well, Appalachian coal camps were, first of all, Appalachian villages. So, that, what meets in that mixture is the, the sense of place and the sense of kin-ship that I was talking about a moment ago. Together with an occupation which, which, which, creates a kind, a new kind of fellowship of its own. That in most coal camps that I know anything about, virtually all of the men had the same occupation. Virtually, all of the women do the same thing. Virtually all of the kids anticipate, pretty much, the same kind of future. So that even though, that the coal camp can be seen as kind of part of the modern industrial machinery that, in fact, is organized very much like the old village from which, from which the old hollow, from which, from which the people came. And, what the coal camps did to a lot of people, I think, is that, they, this kind of fierce sense of independence that comes from the mountains, that's one of the great virtues of the mountains, got tampered to a point, by the fact that people were working for coal companies that, that required a lot of them, required a lot in the way of, way of, the word "obedience" doesn't quite do it, but something like that, something tame, out of people for whom tameness was not really a, something they knew a lot.
JJKF 1287
So, you always find, it seemed to me, you always found these tension in the West Virginia coal mines between the, the, independence of the individuals themselves and, yet, the very dependent relationship they ended up having with the coal camps, with the coal companies, which was virtually unavoidable. There are the old songs about the company store and the old songs about being in debt all the time and the old songs about, being, so, so much caught up in the paternalistic kind of arrangement that it, it kind of stifled the spirit, which mattered a lot because it was stifling the spirit of the people who had had a huge spirit when they went in there.

Q: Did that paternalism influence the response to the Buffalo Creek disaster on the part of the company, on the part of the people it impacted?
JJKF 1371
KE: I think that the people of Buffalo Creek were outraged by what happened, at least in part, because they expected more from the coal company, itself. They had fought, they had earned the right to expect, and I think they had earned the right to expect that what you would get from an employer who was as close as this was, that they would come to your aid like a, like a neighbor does. And what the coal company did, was to kind of gather behind a wall of lawyers and a wall of legalisms and a wall of statements that made no sense to anybody on Buffalo Creek. Had to distance themselves from, you know, hurting human beings, which is a remarkable thing when you thing about it. But, I think, the, among the pains, it's hard to describe it this way and it's hard not to feel, to say, to say in a way that really carries with it the passion it requires, but among the, the pains that the people of Buffalo Creek carried after the flood, itself, was the, this huge sense of having been betrayed by people for whom they worked and in whom they counted.
JJKF 1473
You know, it's as if the outer, the outer human shell in which they lived, proved to be in-human. And, that's a very hard thing to bear. It's hard for people in any disaster, but extremely hard in one like this. And you meet, up and down Buffalo Creek, in those days who would say "you, know, if only they had come to me and ask if I needed a cup of coffee, if only they'd offered my wife a dress." If only they had said "have you got a blanket, are you cold, can we make you warm?" But, nobody came, nobody did anything. And, they began to defend themselves from a lawsuit. One of the ironies being that the best way to bring about a lawsuit is to defend yourself from it before it even begins. It almost creates a need for it. I think the people of Buffalo Creek felt a very, very profound sense of having been let down and treated poorly. Treated like junk.

Q: What was, what is the outcome of Buffalo Creek? What is the bottom line?
JJKF 1568
KE: The, you know, if somebody asks "what is the bottom line with Buffalo Creek," now, all you can really say is that there, either there is no bottom line or there are all kinds of them. That the Buffalo Creek of today, is a nice, I have been there quite recently, it's a nice looking community you can drive up and down it. If you knew it in the old days, it looks very differently than it did. And, if you follow the people who used to live there, you recognize that most of them have moved out, or large numbers of them, in any event, have moved out. They are in similar kinds of hollows, they're in the general neighborhood, they are not that hard to find.
JJKF 1018
But, if, of the physical place called Buffalo Creek, it looks like something that rose out of the ashes into a new, you know, into a new nourished state. But, the old Buffalo Creek just doesn't exist at all if you think of it as a collection of people who knew one another in a certain way, related to one another in a certain way. They are all somewhere else, relating to new people as best they can. I said, "all," and I shouldn't say that, but large numbers of people, they, there were lots of reasons which, that, why people had to leave, something had to do with the shift in land values, some of it had to do with people carrying memories so dark that they didn't think they didn't want to be that close to them. But, in any event, you know, Buffalo Creek is dead, but there is a nice place there called Buffalo Creek, and that's what those, that's, that's the mysterious chemistry of social life, I guess.

Q: It seems to be a very modern moral there, that things will survive even under a different name.
JJKF 1710
KE: Well, it's, I mean the irony is, it survives under the same name, but it's a different thing. And, I suppose, the, the word Buffalo Creek refers to a location on the map, if you don't live there. But, the word Buffalo Creek, to the people who did live there, meant a network of people, a kind of, a kind of community feeling, a temper, a mood, a culture. That's gone. But, Buffalo Creek remains. And, the, because, it is, the place remains, but the sense of place is no longer there. There is a new one developing among new people and I don't know them.

Q: Why is community so important today? Why is community important?
JJKF 1790
KE: Well, the, a lot of people ask why community is so important, especially now, when it seems to be dying out in so many parts of the world, that I think the best answer is that, as a species, we were brought up in communities, we know how to relate in communities. I think we're, I thing we're what, we're suited to, I think we are temperamentally suited to living in smaller groups than the ones that modern life sometimes scatters us into. There's no way that, as a culture, we are ever going to go back to the mountain hollow or to the small village. I mean, economically, it doesn't make any sense, spiritually, it doesn't make any sense, sociologically, it doesn't make any sense. But, I think, I think one of the things that they culture is going to have to work on, is finding new ways for people to relate to one another in the spirit of the old community. Even while the way of life that they engage in is something different than kind of the quiet, agricultural trade pursuits that characterize the old community.

Q: Do you think that community is one of the things that a place like West Virginia, West Virginia specifically, can build on?
JJKF 1897
KE: I think, probably. If I were to try to gather into a room sometime the people who know the most about human community, that, the West Virginians would be among the first people that I would, rural West Virginians, would be among the first people I would invite to come, you know, and share their knowledge of, there are others; there are people in, in certain native-American communities. There are Chicano communities in the southwest, but they are fewer and father between, and I would think, just, I think probably West Virginia as a, as a, a -- I'm going to have to put this a different way, but, the people of West Virginia, even though community is disappearing here, too, probably know more about community and have more, as much to teach other people in the United States about community as anybody anywhere. What's unfortunate about it is that very few people who do have a sense of community, recognize it as a virtue until it is gone. And, then they miss it. And, then they begin to appreciate. That's one of the stories of Buffalo Creek, too.

Q: Cut. Great. That's it.