Kerry Albright on Buffalo Creek, Logan County, WV. Photo by Kerry Albright.
On March 23, 2013, OVEC brought Kerry Albright, the Miracle Baby of Buffalo Creek, to the WV Culture Center to tell his story. Here’s Kerry’s story, in his own words.
First I’d like to thank Maria Gunnoe and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition for asking me to come down from New York Ctiy to speak. Maria thought this would be a great idea because she, as well as 5.5 million other readers saw an article in the January edition of Readers’ Digest. The article was of course called “The Miracle Baby of Buffalo Creek.” Now Maria of course knew this story before the article, but millions of others had simply not heard it, or even of The Buffalo Creek Disaster. It happened in a time when we didn’t have the internet or mass media news.
As I got older and started to read all the books, documentaries and reports on the disaster I started to notice that my story was never there. I always found it odd because I was always being reminded about being The Miracle Baby a lot from the community. This disaster is in the minds of everyone on Buffalo Creek to this day. I recently got to speak to some of the women of Buffalo Creek who told me they still have night mares and very vivid memories of that day.
But because of this recent notoriety in Readers Digest. It made me dwell on my story. Sometimes I feel like I’d told it so many times that I wasn’t for sure if even I was telling it correctly. So I had to go thru articles and ask family members to remind me of the specific details or if i was missing something. I was nine months old after all. I have no actual memories of that day. Thank God.
All of my life I thought this story was about me. How they found me. How old I was, how I made it thru this. But the more and more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is a story not about me but a story about my father. Robert Albright.
Robert grew up with the definition of humble beginnings. My dad grew up as the son of Coal Miner and he had 11 brothers and sisters. He use to tell me stories about how he and his brother would be so hot in the summer that they would sleep under the house on the dirt simply because it was cooler. He never really seemed to complain about his childhood to me. He just kinda told me that’s the way it was. He was really proud of one moment though. That was the day that he and his brothers saved up all of their money from doing odd jobs around the camp and actually saved up to buy their Mom a refrigerator. Not a new refrigerator but a frig. I was young when he told me that story; I wish I would have asked what they were doing without one. I also had one rule growing up and that was to turn the overhead light off in the living room. This was because they didn’t have any light covers in their home and it was just one bright bulb hanging from the ceiling that hurt his eyes. So only lamps were allowed in the living room.
He went to school and was happy until he reached 6th grade. He told me that it was too embarrassing to go each day because he only had one outfit. He said “I didn’t have no clothes decent to wear anyway.” After school he’d race home with his brothers because who ever got home first got to wear the one pair of jeans they had for the entire family, of ELEVEN. So for school….he simply quit. Now, I always found this story to be odd because my father always wore the same exact outfit everyday anyway. Seriously, at the end of each day he would take his outfit off and neatly place or hang it up. Then wake up and put it right back on. I guess it’s different when you have that choice.
My dad knew poverty and swore that he would do better for his family when he had one. So he became a coal miner and started off not really knowing anything in 1942 making very little but he worked very hard and became one of their best electricians. By 1972 he was making $42.80 a day and he could work as much overtime as he wanted.
He married a beautiful woman named Sylvia Bailey and they had two sons named Steve and Terry. Steve was a very talented saxophone player who had received a scholarship at a University. Terry… well, let’s say he was the rebel in the family. To give an example of his rebelliousness I was told by a very special girl in his life that for today I will call Peggy Sparks Browning. Well, Peggy told me that he had an old truck and on the side of it he had put…. “Don’t laugh! Your daughters in here!” So…That was Terry.
Terry was later drafted into The Vietnam War. He did NOT want to go. This rebel was not happy about it. At one point he even wanted to run away to Canada. But a lot of people thought the army was going to be a good thing for this rebel. Because he needed some discipline and The United States army was good for that. Terry kept fighting it though, and threatening CANADA. My dad finally sat him down one day and told him he was going to the army because it was the right thing to do. So finally this rebel bowed down and listened to the words of his father. Even though terry knew in his heart that he wouldn’t return. When I say he knew, several people have told me that he seriously knew this. It wasn’t the fear of going. It was the fear of not coming back.
Terry was murdered in Vietnam by a fellow soldier and rather than recall what I was told I would like to read to you a letter that was sent to me a few years ago by Terry’s best friend in the Army. The man who stood beside him as he was murdered. This is Rudy’s letter to me.
That isn’t quite right, here is what happened.
The platoon was stopped to do some maintenance on our vehicles. Terry and I were working on our tank and decided to go to the road where some Vietnamese girls were selling beer and soda pop and get us something to drink. Terry was in country before I was so I kind of picked him as my teacher to show me the ropes. I was in country for only four months at the time. Anyway we walked to the road and left our rifles at the tank because it was supposed to be fairly secure where we were. We were talking to one of the girls when she gave Terry a bright yellow towel, which we thought was pretty cool being we live in a world of OD GREEN. Shortly after a GI came up to me and Terry and told Terry he wanted the towel. Terry told him no and we went back to talking. The GI cussed at Terry and Terry told in no again with a few cuss words of his own. The GI then told Terry to give him the towel or he would blow him away. Being that term was used every day we didn’t pay it any mind and told him to get screwed and went back talking to the girl. The GI then selected auto and his M 16 and fired several rounds into Terry. I watched Terry fall and the GI then turned the rifle on me and said “you are his friend you’re next”. I don’t know what I said to the guy but he didn’t shoot me. I don’t know what happened after that, I can’t remember how or who stopped him no matter how much I try. I feel I should have done something to stop it. I am sorry. Terry was a good man and didn’t deserve to die like that.
Rudy G. Morris
The army actually did inform my family of this story. There was no cover up or conspiracy and Terry’s death was listed as a homicide.
Needless to say this devastated my father and he never really got over the fact that it was his demands, as his father, that he went. I remember every year on Terry’s birthday I could see my dad staring blankly at the floor. I could see he was concerned but as a child I didn’t quite understand those emotions just yet. But he’s always pause from his stare and look at me and say…ya know…He wanted to go to Canada.
After Terry’s death it was brought to my Mom and Dad’s attention that a cousin was pregnant and had decided that she was not going to be able to care for the child. Robert and Sylvia had always wanted and third child and this might be a good time for the addition. So I was adopted and Named Kerry, after my brother Terry. My dad told me that they had signed the adoption papers before I was born. He said. So no matter what you came out looking like, I was going to have to take you. Thanks Dad.
As a baby, from what I have heard, I was really cute. I was just this perfect little blonde angel that was sent from the heavens. They were obsessed over me. Even Steve, The 17 year old son would carry me around and take me everywhere and show me off as his baby brother.
Everything was getting better and life was slowly coming back from the shock of Terry’s death. Steve had received a scholarship for his ability to play tenor sax. He was very excited to be attending a concert at the college but unfortunately it had rained so hard the past few days that they decided that it wasn’t safe to go. So, no big deal, they decided to just stay home and have a family night.
Then they heard car horns blowing and people screaming. Steve ran outside to investigate only to find a 20 foot wall of black water coming directly at him. Now, I’d like to stop for a moment and just point something out. Just 5 seconds ago I was talking to you about how my brother was on a scholarship for college, My Mom and Dad were slowly recovering from Terry’s death and they had this wonderful new bundle of joy in their lives, me. Then in the blinking of an eye life changed. It changed because this is what happens when a dam breaks. When a dam breaks and you basically live in its path you don’t get to make a quick call or grab a bag. You do the ONLY thing you can do and that’s RUN.
This is exactly what my mom and brother did. They were running with me to get to higher ground on the mountain side. Some people had already made it and they were screaming for my family to make it too. The beginning of the wave of water had risen above their ankles and they could no longer pick their feet up. The force of the water itself and the fact that the water was a black sludge created suction and made it difficult to lift their feet. They knew they were not going to make it. There was no time left. So without hesitation in a last moment effort they counted to three and threw me at nine months old as far as they could to the mountainside. Even with every ounce of life they had left it still was not enough to get me to safety and the water took all three us with it. This is how I lost my mother and brother.
After I was separated from them, it was just me, the millions of gallons of black muddy water that carried me and God. I’m nine months old and being drug away by a tsunami of chemicals, debris and negligence. The raging water was so powerful that it would pick up houses and crush them. Some people could be seen literally riding on the tops of their homes as the water took them away.
After the wall of water had passed and the ground could be seen again the people of Buffalo Creek immediately started to look for survivors. But they didn’t expect to find anyone because who could survive a disaster that crushed your home, carried your car away and left an entire community covered in a black chemical based sludge.
But they looked anyway. It was the preacher and his son, the Vanovers. As they were wading thru the filth. The son told his father that he thought he heard a baby cry. They thought that there’s no way a baby could have survived this. It must have been the cry of an animal. But they looked anyway. Then they saw what appeared to be the leg of a baby doll sticking out of the mud. They grabbed the dolls leg and pull it out from underneath thick mud. They didn’t pull out a doll. They pulled out a nine month old baby and they found that baby because they looked anyway.
If there is anyone that has set an example in my life on how to walk in blind faith it was the Vanovers. They walked blindly and yet they were guided. But I’m by no means safe yet. They saw that my mouth was packed with mud so I had no way to breathe. They immediately carried me to Catherine Gent who just happen to be there and just happen to be a nurse. So she immediately took me from their arms and started forcefully clearing my throat. I had the privilege of speaking to Catherine a few months ago at her home and I got hear her tell me the story directly. She was so sweet and so kind at 92 years old but when she got to the part of the story where she took me from their arms a new person emerged. Her voice deepened.
She said, I took you and started getting everything out of your mouth. I had to force my two fingers down your throat and i just kept pulling out what looked like oily seaweed. It was just strings and string of junk. I have no clue what that actually was. After that she had to make a bandage from bed sheets to hold my right leg on. She said the debris had cut it down to the bone and it looked like a piece of butchered meat. Plus she was very worried because thru all of this I never made one sound. I never even cried. I just quietly laid there as she worked on me. She never even knew who I was because I was covered in that black oil and unrecognizable. Even though I was her 1st cousin’s child.
Now my Dad just happened to be working the Hoot Owl shift when all of this took place. he told me he was about a mile down in that hole and was riding a belt out when all of the sudden the power went out. He was confused because he didn’t hear anything that suggested that there was a problem. But he felt he needed to go ahead and crawl the rest of the way out the hole himself.
When he reached the top he saw the confusion and panic from people. He knew what had happened and he knew the rest of his life that he had worked so hard for was most likely gone as well. He had just lost Terry in Vietnam and now he’s lost his entire family. He feels like he’s lost it all but still, he climbed over a mountain to get where his home and family once stood.”
When he finally got there what he saw was nothing. There was nothing there. But in that nothingness he still asked…Has anyone seen my family? No one had an answer but a neighbor finally said, I think your baby may be alive. But since I was still covered in that thick sludge, no one could identify me. He finally made it over to the small room I was in and saw me in the arms of my Aunt Patty. She said “Robert, I can’t get him to cry and I’m still trying to get this black stuff out of his mouth.” That’s when my dad, without saying a word , leaned over and gently picked me up and softly kissed my cheek. That’s when I started wailing because I knew I was safe in the arms of my Father.
So we got into my Uncle Larry’s truck and he had went ahead and created a road for us to travel on. He got us as far down the holler as he could till I was put into an emergency vehicle that got me to the hospital where they finally could perform surgery to fix my partially severed leg and to clean my body so the sludge chemicals that were already going thru my bloodstream wouldn’t make it worse. I looked like I was in an oil spill. It took them three days to complete the work on me and my father never left my side. Not even for a moment. Not even to change out of his filthy work clothes. He simply chose to wait.
A few days later my dad went to the make-shift morgue at South Man Grade School to identify the bodies of my mother and brother. They were found 800 yards from our home. We moved into a FEMA trailer and lived in Accoville Hollow till I was almost 5. That’s when he decided to take that trailer and place it exactly where our house once stood. He said… I was born and raised here and I will die here.
My father never returned to the mines after that day. He decided that he was going to raise me by himself and he was going to be just fine doing it. He later told me. I had to learn to cook, how to clean, how to sew….I even had to learn how to rock you to sleep at night. So in 1972 my father became a single parent stay at home Dad and he was proud of his new found domestic skills. Later on people started to ask him why he hadn’t re married and he always had a kind answer. Then one day someone asked that question and I guess it rubbed him the wrong way because this new breath had gone into his body that I had not previously seen. He looked her dead in the eye and said, Because I don’t want someone coming into my home that I’ve built and trying to tell me how I should live my life and I definitely don’t want someone coming in here telling Kerry how he should live his. That person never asked that question again. Later on he told me in his soft spoken voice. You can be whoever you want to be and you can do whatever you want to do.