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DOCUMENTING FATAL DISASTER SANTA CLARITA MAN TO TELL OF 1972 COAL DAM COLLAPSE.

Byline: JUDY O'ROURKE

Staff Writer

SANTA CLARITA - It was Feb. 26, 1972, when a dam collapsed in Buffalo Creek, W.Va., and left 125 people dead.

Jim Piccirillo was just in eighth grade, but he still clearly recalls that day 35 years ago when he returned to the school gym and it had been converted into a temporary morgue.

Piccirillo lives in Santa Clarita now and is creating a documentary about the tragedy. He said many residents whose homes edged the creek in the forested valley at the time were slow to react to the rising waters.

"We always had swollen rivers and creeks when it rained," said Piccirillo, 49. "We saw a mattress coming down the river. All of a sudden, we saw pots, pans and clothing.

"Later, a helicopter landed at the high school, and out stepped these people covered in black mud ooze," he recalled. His cousin's wife was among them, dazed and disoriented.

Sixteen communities of coal-mining families had nestled below the dam made of coal waste in Buffalo Creek Hollow. This was not the first time a dam failed to contain water turned soot-black from filtering coal, but it was the worst.

40-foot surge

More than 132 million gallons of water and a million tons of debris broke loose that morning, ripping occupied homes from their foundations, turning many into splinters, and effortlessly sweeping up cars.

In the 40-foot surge, 1,100 were hurt, 4,000 were left homeless and 1,000 cars were ruined. The damage was estimated at $50million, with about $13million paid in settlements.

"In those days, there were no relief concerts," Piccirillo said. "Everyone fended for themselves."

Several of his relatives -- two aunts, an uncle and three cousins -- died. Others lost their homes.

"My grandfather rode in his three-story house -- intact -- until it crashed against (other) houses," Piccirillo said. "He climbed out a third-story window into a tree."

The gym where Piccirillo had watched highschoolers play basketball just the night before now had become a command center and makeshift morgue.

He and his buddies helped arriving National Guardsmen identify victims who just hours earlier had been neighbors in the close-knit community where few bothered to lock their doors.

Little news coverage

On-the-spot media coverage that's the norm today -- allowing viewers to follow the unfolding sagas of stranded victims -- was absent.

Intrepid reporters hiked 10miles to the scene and back out to file their stories -- if they were lucky enough to duck National Guard roadblocks.

Piccirillo, a former news director, said he hopes to finish his documentary someday.

"I've seen senseless gang murders, child abductions and freeway shootings, but it's still too painful to sift through footage from Buffalo Creek," he said.

Two acclaimed documentaries about the disaster have implicated the mine's owner, the Pittston Co., in the catastrophe.

Mining company officials dubbed the event "an act of God." Piccirillo's aunt, Ruth Morris, chauffeured filmmaker Mimi Pickering, narrating the inventory of loss.

"She was wonderful. In some ways so typical of so may West Virginia women of her generation -- outspoken ... turning a phrase in a colorful way, explaining her feelings," Pickering said Friday. "She was invaluable to the film."

Morris died several years ago. But the films were among a select few added to the National Film Registry in 2005, having been deemed culturally, historically or aesthetically important by the Library of Congress.

"(Documentaries) can be both entertaining and powerful," said Pickering, who's pointed her camera at real folks for more than 30 years. "Reality TV isn't real at all."

The state of West Virginia and the federal government enacted strict safety measures some years ago.

"The Buffalo Creek impoundment failure of 1972 was a horrible tragedy," Richard Stickler, assistant secretary of labor for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said in an e-mail.

"For its part, the (agency) reviews the design and engineering plans of coal waste impoundments and conducts regular inspections to ensure that their structural integrity is maintained."

Moved to L.A.

Piccirillo came to Los Angeles in 1979 to join his brother Mike, now 55, who had made a name for himself as a songwriter and record producer.

Piccirillo parlayed a communication degree from Marshall University into directing and producing jobs -- for many years directing news and special-events coverage for KTTV (Channel 11), where he worked for a decade.

His company, Valencia Production Partners, provides production services to TV networks and businesses.

Ironically, his adopted home has its own dam story. About 470 people died after a dam built by William Mulholland burst on the eve of March12,1928, sending a 180-foot mountain of water into San Francisquito Canyon and into the the Pacific Ocean at Ventura.

It ranks as one of the state's largest disasters.

To learn more about the documentaries, "The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man," and "Buffalo Creek Revisited," visit www.appalshop.org. More resources also are available in the Marshall University archives and at the West Virginia State Film Commission.

judy.orourke(at)dailynews.com

(661) 257-5255

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3 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 3) Santa Clarita resident Jim Piccirillos survived the 1972 Buffalo Creek dam disaster and is making a documentary about the deadly event, which nearly destroyed the community. In the 40-foot surge, 125 people died and 1,100 were hurt.

David Crane/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 26, 2007
Words:884
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