The Sycamore at the Mouth of Stonecoal Hollow

When Mom called me by my first and second name, I knew I was in trouble.  This time it was different.  She wasn’t angry, she was scared.  She didn’t say “Gregory Michael” in a “go out back and get me a switch” tone.  She screamed it, terrified not only for me but for herself as well.

Like so many accidents, there was no need for this to happen.  However, when people think about accidents, they rarely ever go back to the true root cause.  They usually start with the person involved and the decisions they make.  It can certainly be argued we got ourselves in this mess.  But when I ponder what happened it seems our fate was sealed in the beginning of time, and yet our circumstance could have been changed in so many ways through the ages it is almost unfathomable.

Take the enigma of coal for instance, which precipitated this event in the first place.

Around 300 million years ago, before the Appalachian mountain chain was pushed up by a collision of continental plates,  a vast swampy region stretched from western Pennsylvania, across West Virginia to eastern Kentucky and down into southwestern Virginia.   It is estimated to form a foot of coal it takes 2,000 to 3,000 years of plant sedimentation in a swamp with a permanently high water table.  Some coal seams are over 40 feet thick.  The plant debris that formed coal in the Appalachians is made of trees, not by peat and moss like in modern day swamps.  The trees of those times were nothing like the trees of today, more akin to ferns than anything else.

Many things could keep the coal from forming.  If the trees fell into the swamp and then the swamp dried up, they would simply rot and disappear.  If the water in the swamp became aerated by wind or moving water, the plant sedimentation would rot.  If there was too much precipitation, clay and sand would be washed in with the plant debris to form slate or shale instead of coal.  Indeed, often between coal seams there are many layers of sandstone, slate and shale.

And as if all of this were not enough, the plant debris had to be covered by 3,000 feet or so of overburden and left to simmer for millennia.  But nobody mines coal 3,000 feet deep.  The seams of coal then had to be uplifted by some geologic event for it to get near enough to the surface for anyone to get at.

Call it what you will, dumb luck or God’s plan.  But as I floated through the crack in the second story landing as the house fell apart around me, I surely hoped it was God and not dumb luck, and that He saw it fit to find a way to get me out of this mess.

As for our responsibility in the situation, none of us should have been so cavalier about the menace lurking in the heads of hollows above us.  In the beginning, when the creeks and rivers swelled to overflowing and the rumors trickled out that a refuse dam was about to bust, people became concerned.  But after so many years and false calls, people just didn’t pay attention anymore.

I remember one afternoon Mom and Dad were fighting about him going squirrel hunting.  He said he would be home before dark.  Her quick reply was, “Yeah, and the dam at the head of the hollow is about to break.”  It had become that kind of thing, used without thinking, in arguments, jokes and even in sexual innuendos.

All across the coal fields of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky similar scenarios played out.  Haphazard mountains of coal refuse dumped across the heads of valleys were used to dam streams so sludge could settle out of water used to clean coal.   The Appalachian’s economic lifeblood had become a deadly aneurism waiting to burst.

It culminated in the 1950’s as coal companies automated the mining processes.  They found a way to separate coal from the useless slate and other rock by floating it in a slurry mixed with a heavy mineral called magnetite which raised the specific gravity of the mixture and caused the coal to float. A black slurry of water and fine coal particles was dumped back into the rivers and the cool mountain streams.

The black water changed the way we lived.  No longer could you drive your car into a shoal in the river (aka Appalachian car wash) to clean it.  Churches began installing baptismals.  It seemed not even God could wash away sins in our black rivers.  And as if that wasn’t enough, the fishing was ruined.  The clear mountain streams were choked black and lifeless.  Once you could trace the course of the river at night by the lanterns of fishermen lining its banks.   Grandpa speculated that the divorce rate went up as the population of catfish went down as men traded Friday night on the river for Friday night at the Riverside Bar.

Finally, laws were passed and the black waters were cleaned by percolating them through the haphazard refuse dams.


At 5:30 Saturday morning on February 2, Tim Gilbert answered a call from Trace Porter, President of Clewiston’s mining operations in southeastern Kentucky.

“Tim, I need your help in the worst way.”

“You know I’ll help in any way I can. What kind of trouble we looking at?”, was Tim’s sleepy reply..

Tim and Trace were good friends.  They played cards together and had dinner at each other’s homes.  Tim knew Trace wouldn’t be calling him at 5:30 am unless some kind of trouble was brewing.  Trace used Tim to do subcontracting work when there was trouble with the Department of Natural Resources or the Union. When Trace needed someone he could count on to keep his mouth shut, he called Tim.

“I’m afraid we’ve got a real problem with the dam at the head of Wilson Creek,” Trace said.

“According to rumor, it’s been about to go for about 15 years.  You mean to tell me this time it’s for real,” Tim replied in a teasing tone.

“With all this rain, the dam has settled a bit and we have a pool of water standing on top of the dam.  Hell, the dam is 200 yards wide at the top and a-half-mile across.  I bet we have 3 acres of water 2 ft. deep.  I’m afraid if that water starts to drain off the front of the dam it could cause trouble considering the creek is already at flood stage.”

“Hell fire, Trace, I wouldn’t be worrying about 3 acres of water 2 ft. deep on the top of the dam.  You have 2 miles of water backed up behind that dam and all that sludge.  If the dam has started to settle, sounds to me like you better let people down the creek know.”

“I’ll call the sheriff’s office if you promise you’ll come up and take a look at it with me.”

“I’ll see you in an hour,” Tim promised.

Oh, hell, Tim thought, if it hasn’t broke by now, it not going to break. Trace’s been out drinking all night and he wants someone sober to look at it. He didn’t want his engineers near him with him smelling like a distillery, Tim reasoned.

In an hour, just as he had promised, Tim drove out on the dam and pulled up to Trace’s full size Chevy Blazer.  Trace got out of his vehicle, coffee in hand. It didn’t appear that Trace had been drinking–much anyway.

The acrid smell of sulfur filled the air.  The dam was made out of slate, really just a very poor grade of coal that couldn’t be sold.  It was dumped down the sides of mountains and used in the refuse dams.  As it accumulated it would, over time, spontaneously combust and begin a low grade smolder.  The front of the dam had been burning for years, but because the dam was so wide it caused little to no concern.

The scene was surreal in the early morning gloom.  Behind the dam was the black water stretching far beyond the bend in the hollow.  The bare, grey trees of the mountains in the distance looked like the gray stubble face of an old black man.  Everything around them was black and muddy and partially obscured by the smoke and steam rising off the burning slate.

“Okay, Trace, I’ll tell you what,” Tim offered.  “You’ve already called the sheriff (Tim didn’t know that Trace hadn’t done this) and people know to be looking out for trouble.  I’ll take that D9 and let that water off the face of the dam real slow.  Nothing to it.  You go back to the office at #3 mine and call Mary.  Tell her to have breakfast ready by 8:30 and that you’re coming with me.”

Unfortunately Mary would be eating alone.

From his vantage point, Tim couldn’t see that the water he was so carefully draining down the face of the dam was seeping into one of the burning fissures.  As the steam sputtered and spat the fissure was blown larger letting the full stream of water in.  When the original fissure blew into another larger one inside the dam, it let the water rush in all at once on fresh hot coals.  As the water hit the hot coals, it was like a pressure cooker exploding.  The water laden dam began to disintegrate.

Tim threw the throttle full forward on the hulking bulldozer as the dam crumbled under its tracks.  Later, when Tim found out how many people perished in the deluge he would regret he made it to safety.  But he never told it to anyone but Trace.

At the sound of the explosion, everyone in the mine office at Clewiston #3 came running out.  There was a huge cloud of steam coming from the direction of the refuse dam.  No one could begin to imagine what had happened and the horror that had been unleashed, except Trace.

Oh, God, Trace thought, I’m responsible for this.  “Hurry,” he yelled to someone standing in the office door, “call the Sheriff’s Department before the phone lines are down.  The dam has busted.”


Burhead Vance stood on our front porch, head down, tapping his foot impatiently as he waited for someone to answer the door.

Burhead was a county deputy.  I had a run in with Burhead the summer before.  My best friend Mikey and I were going door to door selling tomatoes from our garden when Burhead pulled up beside us in his patrol car and told us to get in.

“You boys got a permit to be sellin’ those big beef steak tomatoes,” Burhead asked, knowing the answer.

“I didn’t think we needed a permit to sell tomatoes,” I said innocently.

“You’re Stonewall’s boy aren’t you?”

Of course, I thought, we’re in the same hunting camp together in Pocahontas County.  You and dad have coon hunted together.  Burhead had been at our house on a couple of occasions.  What kind of a question was that?

At that point my friend Mikey started to whimper.  His dad had died the winter before and he would break down and cry at the weirdest moments.

“Well, since you’re Stonewall’s son, I guess I’ll cut you some slack.  I could get in trouble over this boys, but I’m gonna let you go with a warning.”  Then he added with a grin, “But I’m gonna have to keep those tomatoes as evidence.”

I almost cried when all Dad did was laugh when I told him.  I guess some people are so hopeless all you can do is laugh.

Mom and Dad were in the kitchen fixing breakfast.  The sweet smell of sausage and bacon filled the house.  I could practically taste it already.  I heard Mom’s fork scraping the cast iron skillet as she stirred the gravy.  Eggs were the last thing that went on the stove and I could hear them sizzling and popping in hot bacon grease.

Oh, great I thought, Burhead is going to going to want to stay for breakfast.

I cracked the door open determined to head him off.

“Get your dad, son.”

“He’s busy.”

Without another word Burhead leaned against the door, brushed past me and headed for the kitchen.

When Burhead saw that breakfast was practically on the table he paused only momentarily.

“The dam at the head of the holler is about to break or maybe it already has.  You all get the kids and head for the hillside.  Stay off the road.  We’re too close to the dam to make it out of the holler.”  He grabbed a hot biscuit and a sausage patty and left without further explanation.  Knowing Burhead, the fact that he wasn’t staying for breakfast gave us all a deep foreboding.  And although we had never had a cop in uniform at the door before, Dad had heard “wolf” too many times to send us all out into the cold.

We could see up the creek for about ¾ of a mile from the dining room table.  As we ate, we kept our eyes on the creek.  After breakfast, Mom made us put on our coats and boots just in case we had to leave in a hurry.  We sat in front of the big picture window watching cartoons with Mom and Dad glancing furtively up the creek.  For us kids, there was excitement in the air, like waiting for the first big snowflakes to fall when the weather man is predicting a heavy snowfall that might keep us out of school.  For about 20 minutes, without a clue to the consequences, we kids pretty much wanted the dam to break.  Of course, none of us would admit that later.

When Mom went to the kitchen for a coffee refill she saw several families already gathered on the hill behind the house where there was a good vantage to watch the creek all the way up to the curve.  I imagine in her mind she could already hear the tongues wagging about the careless mother putting her kids at risk because she didn’t want to go out into the cold.  She rushed us out before the cartoon finished.

And boy was it cold! The front that brought all the rain had moved through and we were now on the back side of a low pressure system.  The temperature had dropped into the high twenties with a NW wind gusting up to thirty mph. Our eyes watered from the wind as we huddled together bent over trying to keep warm.  Some of the men built a fire but the wind was blowing so hard you couldn’t keep warm without practically standing in the flames.

“Mom, can I get some blankets,” I pleaded.  I was the fastest runner in middle school.  I was a shoo-in to break the county record in the 440 and mile if they would let me run in both events.  No way could a flood catch me.  Years later I came to realize when you’re uncomfortable enough or have enough to gain, you can justify just about anything.

“Watch the creek,” Mom said.

I was off like a rocket down the hill to our house less than 60 yards away.  I slid around the corner and dashed in the front door leaving it open.  We kept the blankets in my room upstairs.  I took 4 steps at a time practically flying up the stairs.  I gathered more blankets than I could carry struggling to pick up the ones I dropped with arms full.

I felt it before I heard it.  It was a vibration in my gut that made me stop at the window in the stair landing and look up the creek.  Coming around the bend was a wall of debris 30 ft. high.  You couldn’t see the water behind it.  Mostly there were houses but with trees and cars mixed in.  For a moment I thought it would create a dam and stop the water but it marched on deceptively fast.

How long had I stood there watching the wall of debris advance?  It knocked our neighbors’ houses off their foundations and grated them like a head a cabbage before engulfing them.

I didn’t become aware of the deafening rumble until the Curtis’s house was knocked off its foundation and came sliding toward ours.  Still I heard my mother scream my name as the Curtis’s house slammed into ours splitting it wide open right up through the window in the landing where I was standing.  The house feel apart around me as it grated down the valley.  I latched onto my twin mattress as it came tumbling down the stairs. The bottom of the pile of debris moved faster than the top, so even as the houses were grated down initially, as they became engulfed, they began to be lifted up and back like on a giant conveyor toward the black water.

Up, up I was carried on the mattress.  Now behind the initial wall in the swirling black froth, I was kept afloat by the debris churning beneath.  Time and again I would sink to find myself lifted back up by part of a house top or car that came boiling up from underneath.  I had a death grip on the mattress, now rolled up like a log.  Initially there was no time to think, no time to contemplate whether or not I would survive, no time to pray. I would have to rely on past prayers and the prayers of those left on the mountain side.  I was totally consumed with hanging on to the mattress and getting my next breath.  How many times I went under and came up past the time I thought I could hold my breath I don’t know. All that running evidently paid off.

Finally something came boiling up from underneath and supported me long enough to catch my breath for a minute.  Just when the thought entered my mind that I might actually survive, my jacket caught on something and I was yanked under, way deep.  Squeezed and battered from all sides, I hung onto the mattress.  I would have been a goner had I not been able to unzip my jacket with one hand and hold on, one arm at a time, as it was pulled off.  Debris tore at my clothing until I was practically – or maybe even fully naked – I’m not sure.  In some respects time stood still.  Perhaps I was in shock, but the battering by the debris didn’t hurt any more.  I remember thinking that if this is dying, then maybe it’s not so bad.  My lungs burned for air but the panic was gone.  Then something hit me from underneath and rolled me over.  I had come back to the surface just upside-down.

Time is relative as it pertains to its perception in the human brain.  In an instant your whole life can flash before your eyes.   So it’s no exaggeration to say that it was after an eternity of being torn and crushed, bobbing above and under the black froth that I became aware I had drifted near the mountainside and was tantalizingly close to a tree branch now and again.  Letting go of the very thing that saved me was a most difficult thing to do.  But if I was going to live, I would eventually have to let go of the mattress and grab hold of something that had stood up to the ravages of the flood

Likewise, years later I learned that I floundered when I lived my life according to the vagrancies of happenstance, drifting one way or the other depending on what felt good that day.  It was essential to my well-being to identify the principles and values that don’t change over time or because of circumstance.  Principles and values are like laws of nature and are as true today as they were millennia ago.  In my mind they are akin to the sycamore I was found in that still grows strong by the bridge at the mouth of Stonecoal hollow 46 years later.

I don’t remember how I came to rest on the limb except for the vague thought, that didn’t come until years later, of someone helping me.  Was it God’s hand or a person that scooped me up and left me clinging to a branch 25 feet up.

The National Guard arrived by night fall.  They searched for survivors by spotlight from helicopters.  Because the train tracks and bridges had been washed out, it would take a couple of days before they could reach the neighborhoods at the head of the hollow by vehicle.

There were 5 bodies in the tree I was recovered from.  I was the 5th to go in a body bag.  It seemed obvious we were all dead.   It nearly scared the young corpsman to death when I let out a low moan as he zipped up the bag. It wasn’t until 2 days later when my father was notified that I had survived and was in stable condition in Stapleton Appalachian Regional Hospital.

As you can imagine, there is a part of me that feels responsible for the fate of my mother.  However, there is another part of me that likes to think she saw me through this. Could she have been responsible for that vague thought of someone helping me?  You see, she was one of those found with me in the sycamore by the bridge at the mouth of Stonecoal hollow.