Strolling down a street near his Brooklyn, New York, apartment, wearing a polo shirt and jeans, his close-cropped hair masking a slight bald patch, 41-year-old Kerry Albright appears unassuming, almost ordinary. When he speaks, his sweet drawl pegs him as a Southerner, but he’s without any small-town reserve. Instead, Kerry speaks with dramatic flair that shows off his 19 years in musical theater, performing on international stages. He’s an avid Facebook user with 1,000 “friends” and regularly posts stories about his travels and other pastimes. “I’m one of those people who just want to hang out with friends and laugh,” he says.
Until prompted, though, he says nothing about his childhood in the poverty-strangled coal-mining town of Lorado, West Virginia, and he owns but one photo of the golden-haired, angel-faced little boy he once was. Always at the back of his mind, however, is the catastrophe that claimed half his family and that he barely survived. He was too little to remember the event that earned him the nickname Miracle Baby.
Friday, February 25, 1972, dawned clear and beautiful, a blue-skied reprieve from the rain and snow that had been pelting the Buffalo Creek valley, a 17-mile-long basin nestled in the West Virginia foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, for weeks. Inside their white clapboard house in Lorado, 39-year-old Sylvia Albright hustled her son Steven, 17, out the door to the school bus, then turned her attention to baby Kerry Lee. At nine months old, he was just beginning to outgrow a nasty stretch of colic. Now that the sun was shining, maybe Sylvia could take the baby outside for a bit. With the clouds lifted, at least for now, some of the anxiety about the Buffalo Creek dam seemed to lift too.
The dam was built eight years earlier to contain and filter water used to wash mined coal. It was actually three dams, all of them made of slate, rock particles, and leftover coal, built in tiers on the hill overlooking Buffalo Creek. By 1972, the top dam held back a 31-foot-deep lake of 132 million gallons of slurry—enough to fill more than 200 Olympic swimming pools. By February all three dams had filled to near-overflow levels. And folks were worried.
Sylvia, a cook at the elementary school, and her husband, Robert, a miner, had other things on their minds. Their 21-year-old son, Terry, had been killed by a fellow soldier 16 months earlier in Vietnam. In the aftermath, Sylvia had been briefly hospitalized for depression. To try to recover, the couple had turned their focus toward bringing up Steven, who had earned a music scholarship to a nearby college.
A few months after Terry died, early in 1971, a young relative phoned to tell them she was pregnant and would not be able to raise the child. She offered the baby to the couple, and when he was born in May, the Albrights brought home a cherubic blond newborn boy, whom they named Kerry Lee. The couple had always wanted another child; the new baby was a bright spot in the otherwise dark time after Terry’s death.
But that February evening in 1972, clouds were gathering again. Thunder rattled the house. Close to midnight, lightning illuminating the wet asphalt road in front of him, Robert drove his Gremlin to a nearby mine to work the hoot owl shift.
In previous days, conditions at the dam had been deteriorating. In 24 hours, between Thursday and Friday afternoons, the level of the slurry lake behind the dam had risen 18 inches. By Friday, the water was rising an inch an hour, then faster as the hard rain started up again—two inches an hour, then three.
Pittston Coal Company mine officials hadn’t ordered an evacuation for the valley, but most of the 18 homes and two trailers in Saunders, the town upstream from Lorado, had emptied out. Three miles south, in Lorado, porch lights burned all night as folks waited for word about the dam. Sylvia and Robert, on the other hand, figured this time would be like the rest—a lot of fretting for nothing.
Early the next morning, a crack ten feet wide and 30 feet long formed along the top of the uppermost dam. The front retaining wall bulged like soaked cardboard. Officials ordered workers to repair the dam, but it was too late. Before the work could begin, the dam’s right side began to crumble like a sand castle. Water poured through, ripping the hole wider and wider.
It took mere minutes for the dam to collapse completely. The lake of black coal slurry surged toward the lower two dams, sparking a series of explosions as the water hit pockets of burning coal. In seconds, the two lower dams were obliterated.
[pullquote] It rolled in like ocean waves, and on its crest, homes that had been torn off their foundations were thrown around like toy boats. [/pullquote]
There was no longer anything to hold the water back. The wave washed into Saunders, sweeping away the Free Will Baptist Church, which the Albrights attended. The valley there was only 200 feet wide in places, rimmed by mountains that funneled the 20-foot wall of slurry at a rate of seven feet per second. Buildings, homes, cars, telephone poles, power lines, and massive trees were plucked from the ground and hurled down a river of dark muck. Within a few minutes, Saunders was leveled.
Meanwhile, Saturday morning had started sleepily at the Albright home. Sylvia, who had planned to go with Steven to Charleston for a concert, learned that the event had been rained out. She played with Kerry Lee and started the coffee. Robert would get home around 8:15, and the family would eat breakfast together.
A few minutes past eight, the lights flickered, then went out. Power outages happened sometimes, but then Sylvia and Steven heard cars honking their horns, people shouting. Steven went outside to investigate and looked up to see a 20-foot black mountain of water and debris coming toward the house. It rolled in like ocean waves, and on its crest, homes that had been torn off their foundations were thrown around like toy boats. People were still inside some of them. They grabbed at the windows, their faces masks of terror. In the roaring of the water, Steven could hear the buildings popping and snapping as they broke up.
He raced back inside. “The dam broke!” he shouted. Sylvia grabbed baby Kerry Lee, who was wearing only a diaper. Steven took his mother’s arm, and together all three of them tumbled through the back door and into the yard, where the water was rising fast. Their only possible escape route was up a steep, densely wooded hill about 50 feet behind their home. Some of their neighbors—including Timmy Bailey, a classmate of Steven’s—were already up there.
Sylvia held tightly to Kerry Lee and let Steven shepherd her through the water. The crest of the hill didn’t seem very far, but each step through the viscous black liquid seemed to suck them down. By the time they made it to the limestone hill, they were up to their waists in black slurry. Their neighbors stretched out their hands, but Steven and Sylvia couldn’t reach them.
Frantic to save Kerry Lee, Sylvia began swinging him back and forth to heave him up the hillside. But the water was too high and she was losing strength. She let the baby go. He hit the water and was instantly swept downstream. The flood dragged Sylvia and Steven after him.
Deep inside the Buffalo Creek mine, Robert Albright had spent the night fixing a broken coal loader. It wasn’t until the drive home, when he saw the water spread across the valley, that he understood what had happened.
He drove the Gremlin as far as he could until water blocked the roadway. Then he abandoned the car, intending to walk the remaining half mile to Lorado. When he finally reached town around 9 a.m., it looked “like a bomb had gone off,” as one neighbor put it. Houses had been thrown against other buildings or splintered into pieces. Lengths of railroad track were pretzeled around bridge pilings. Cars lay in mangled heaps. A layer of tarry coal sludge, as thick as pudding, covered everything. Amid the debris were the bodies of children and adults, broken, sludge-covered, and unrecognizable.
He yelled to a neighbor, “Where’s my family?”
“They didn’t get out,” the neighbor replied.
Robert crumpled. His family was dead.
Elsewhere amid the chaos, Ernest Vanover, a preacher, and his son Frank were searching for Frank’s wife and little girl. The men picked their way toward Lundale, two miles away, where Frank’s family had last been seen. As they crossed a culvert about a half mile from the Albrights’ home, Frank heard a high-pitched mewling sound coming from the pile of debris below.
“Dad, I hear a baby crying,” he said.
“It was probably just a dog or a cat,” Ernest responded.
Still, he peered down and saw a tiny leg poking from the mud. It appeared to be a doll, but something impelled the men to dig into the muck with their hands. They pulled out a naked baby. The top of one thigh was cut to the bone. The boy’s head was bloodied, and his mouth was packed with mud and sludge. He’d been buried facedown for possibly 20 to 30 minutes, but when the Vanovers cleaned the sticky black stuff from his mouth with a pocket handkerchief, he gasped for breath.
The men wrapped the boy in a coat, then carried him to a nearby home, where they found Sylvia’s first cousin Katheryn Ghent. She was a nurse. “Here, Katheryn,” Ernest Vanover said, handing her the wrapped bundle. “We found this baby.” The child was so caked in coal oil that not even Katheryn recognized him as Kerry Lee Albright.
Katheryn wrapped the boy in a neighbor’s bedspread and washed his mouth with fresh water until the nine-month-old spewed up black slurry and began to breathe more easily. Sylvia’s sister, Patty Wright, recognized the baby instantly. “That’s my sister’s baby, Kerry Lee,” she said. Katheryn passed the bundle off to her.
When it was clear that Kerry Lee was without his mother, Patty knew Sylvia was dead. Where were Robert and Steven?
Kerry Lee’s silence worried her the most. “He never made one sound the whole time,” she remembers. “He never even cried.”
[pullquote] At last, the gravely injured nine-month-old started wailing. He knew his father. [/pullquote]
Robert climbed up the hill behind where his house once stood, searching for his family. He lost track of time. Then a neighbor approached him. “Your boy Kerry Lee might be alive.” Robert felt a glimmer of hope spring up in him. He was directed down the mountain to his sister-in-law’s house. When he walked in, Patty was on the floor, cradling a silent Kerry Lee. “Robert, I can’t get him to cry,” she said. “I’m still trying to get this black stuff out of his mouth.” Robert leaned over and tenderly kissed Kerry Lee on the cheek, then picked him up. At last, the gravely injured nine-month-old started wailing. He knew his father.
It took Robert and Patty the rest of the day to get Kerry Lee across the devastated valley and to the hospital in Man, 11 miles away. “When they unfolded the blanket, [his leg] looked like a meat cleaver had been taken to it,” says Patty. Doctors rushed to repair his leg and other wounds. Robert stayed at Kerry Lee’s side, not changing out of his filthy work clothes for three days, until someone brought him something clean to wear.
On the fifth day after the flood, Robert filed into the temporary morgue set up at South Man Grade School to identify the bodies of Steven and Sylvia, who had been found 800 yards from their home. They were among 118 people, ranging in age from three months to 82 years old, who were killed along Buffalo Creek. The flood ravaged the town in minutes, injuring 1,100 people and destroying more than 500 homes. Officials from Pittston Coal Company called the disaster “an act of God.”
Later, Robert moaned to Patty, “Why in the world would God take my [wife] and my boy and leave this baby like this? Why couldn’t he have taken me?”
Robert Albright never returned to his job in the coal mines. Living on disability payments and, later, on a small payout from the company that had designed the dams, he devoted himself to Kerry Lee, learning to bathe the baby, mend his clothes, and cook pots of beef stew to last a week. “Holding me and learning to rock me to sleep was a big thing for him,” says Kerry, his preferred name as an adult. “But he did it.” After spending a few years in a trailer, Robert built a new home in Lorado on the same lot as the first one. He filled the yard with go-karts, bows and arrows, a motorcycle. When Kerry Lee showed a talent for performing, Robert signed him up for private dance and voice lessons. Over and over again, he told his son, “You can do whatever you want to do and be whatever you want to be, but you will not work in that coal mine.” With Kerry at his bedside, Robert Albright died of throat cancer, at age 70, in 2000.
Though he never knew his mother, Kerry thinks often of her sacrifice for him. “It must have been such an overwhelming moment when she knew that the only way to save me was to throw me,” he says. But, he explains, he never felt like he was without a mother. “I had a lot of people who acted as mother figures,” he says. “I felt like I had about 20 mothers.”
Kerry understands why he was known as a miracle baby but insists his father’s survival was just as extraordinary.
“There’s really no logical explanation for why I survived,” he continues. “But my father had been through the deaths of his wife and two sons,” Kerry says. “All he had left was this baby he’d adopted. I think I gave him something to live for.”