Ten Horrific Disasters That Happened in West Virginia

Updated on December 18, 2017
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Tom Lohr loves travel, photography, mid-century Americana, and all things weird.

No state embodies the culture, flavor and experience of Appalachia more than West Virginia. Its rich natural resources helped power America to the world's most prosperous nation. It is blessed with natural beauty and have given us national heroes and treasures with the likes of Chuck Yeager and Peal Buck. West Virginia, despite its good fortune and hearty folk, has also suffered its share of tragedy. Most states experience some misfortune, but West Virginia, with its small size and sparse population has had more than its fair share.

As one of the poorest states, one would think mother nature and lady luck would cut West Virginia some slack, but our list demonstrates otherwise. Over the years fate has been harsh, destroying lives, causing immeasurable grief and giving residents cause to wonder if destiny has it in for them.

Monongah Mining Disaster

It is not surprising that a coal mine explosion ranks as the top disaster in West Virginia. In fact, the Monongah mining catastrophe is the worst mining accident in United States history. Coal has been the lifeblood of the state, and while it has been beneficial for the country, it is a mixed bag for West Virginia. Coal mining provides steady jobs, but jobs that are among the most dangerous in the world.

That risk, on the morning of December 6, 1907, claimed the lives of 362 miners. Located near Fairmont, WV, Monongah mines 7 and 8 were considered to be state of the art, using electric equipment and locomotives. But just after 10 am, a large explosion occurred, filling the interconnected mines with flames, gas, dust and death. The local bank was converted into a morgue to accommodate the excess of victims as they were slowly pulled from the rubble.

Investigators' best guess is that the explosion was caused by a “blown out shot” while blasting or ignition of powder used for blasting. Regardless, finding the exact cause would provide little comfort to the 1000 widows and children of the deceased miners.

Monongah Mining Disaster Monument
Monongah Mining Disaster Monument | Source

Shinnston Tornado

Of the 1,224 annual average of tornadoes in the United States, West Virginia has 2.4 per annum. That is one of the lowest occurrences of twisters in the nation, but when they do happen, they can be as deadly as any storm in Tornado Alley. The deadliest in the state took place in the town of Shinnston, eerily only a few miles south of the site of the Monongah mine disaster.

During June 22-23, 1944 the region experienced an outbreak of violent storms, but the low population per square mile made the likelihood of a tornado striking a populated area long odds. At 8:30 pm on June 23, the odds were not in Shinnston's favor. A category F-4 tornado struck the heart of town. The twister then continued on and severely damaged a natural gas compressor station and downing power lines. A total of 103 people were killed by the event, 66 of them in Shinnston.

Shinnston Tornado debris
Shinnston Tornado debris | Source

Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster

While explosions and tornadoes are merciful enough to kill their victims quickly, a slow death is truly horrific. That was the fate of workers that toiled away drilling a tunnel through Gauley Mountain near Gauley Bridge, WV. The three mile long tunnel was designed to divert water from the New River to a hydroelectric plant to power a local metals facility. The tunnel work promised good paying jobs, and in 1930 good paying jobs were in short supply.

The tunneling went well, the only problem was that the rock that had to be blasted and drilled through had a high content of silica. Breathing silica dust causes a lung disease called silicosis, which coats the lungs and slowly suffocates it victims. There were few safety measures for tunneling in 1930, and workers often emerged from a day's work coated in white silica dust. Workers began falling ill and unable to complete the project. They were simply replaced with new workers.

The tunnel was eventually finished and provides power to the metals plant to this day. However the human cost of the venture was staggering. Of the 2,500 men that worked in the tunnel, 764 died a miserable death from silicosis. More died later of related illnesses, giving the Hawks Nest Disaster the unofficial title of “America's worst industrial disaster.”

Hawks Nest tunnel entrance
Hawks Nest tunnel entrance | Source

Farmington Mine Disaster

Given that West Virginia is one of the most prolific coal producers in the nation, it understandably has had its share of mining disasters. One of the worst and noteworthy happened a mere 5 miles from the nation's worst mining catastrophe at Monongah. On November 20, 1968 the night shift saw 99 coal miners descend into the Farmington number 9 mine. Early that morning, an explosion erupted and 21 of the miners came scrambling out. The rest remained trapped inside the mine, which had caught fire.

Unable to to reach the trapped miners due to the fire, and determining via air samples that no one left inside could have survived, the company sealed the entrance to suffocate the flames; 78 miners perished. Ten months later, searchers entered the mine to recover bodies of the miners. After 9 years of searching, all but 19 workers remains were recovered. The remainder are entombed in the mine.

Miner Rescued from Farmington Disaster
Miner Rescued from Farmington Disaster | Source

Silver Bridge Collapse

The majority of West Virginia's western border is defined by the Ohio River. This waterway provides transportation, recreation and serves as a water supply for the regions large industrial base. Naturally, residents on both banks of the river wanted the ability to cross it and bridges began springing up as soon as roadways became the norm.

The Silver Bridge, named for the color it was painted, was erected in 1928 to connect Point Pleasant, WV with Gallipolis, OH. The bridge was innovative at the time, it used an eyebar-link suspension that replaced the dated wire-cable suspension type. For decades the Silver Bridge dutifully carried traffic safely across the Ohio River until age caught up with it.

One of the bone shaped eyebars developed a small crack. Out of obvious sight, the crack continued to corrode until it finally broke. When the eyebar failed, its share of the load transferred to a neighboring link. The additional stress proved too much for the the aging structure and the links began to fail during evening rush hour on December 15, 1967. The bridge collapsed sending 32 vehicles plunging into the icy river. While 21 people survived the collapse, 46 did not, including 2 that were never found.

The collapsed Silver Bridge
The collapsed Silver Bridge | Source

Buffalo Creek Dam Failure

Coal mining disasters don't have to involve explosions to claim victims, ancillary operations can also lead to catastrophe. This is what happened along Buffalo Creek in Logan County. The water, slate, clay and low-grade coal waste from mining has to go somewhere. It was common practice to build “gob dams” or impoundments out of the waste to keep waste runoff from leaving the mining site, supply water when needed and control flooding into the mine.

The mining company at Buffalo Creek built its first gob dam in 1960, another upstream in 1966 and was adding to a third in 1972. The result was three huge pools of dammed up water in the middle fork of Buffalo Creek. Despite the dams needing improvements after inspection by state officials, none were made and after several days of rainfall the upper dam failed on February 26, 1972. The sudden release of water caused the two downstream dams to also fail.

The result was 132 million gallons of water gushing down the narrow Buffalo Creek hollow and through several towns along the way. The wall of water destroyed 546 dwellings and killed 125 people.

The Buffalo Creek Area
The Buffalo Creek Area | Source

Southern Airways Flight 932

On November 14, 1970, the Marshall University football team was flying back from Greenville, NC following a loss to East Carolina. On approach to their destination, the team's chartered DC-9 aircraft made a controlled flight into terrain a few miles short of the runway. The aircraft burst into flames.

The entire football team, along with coaching staff, boosters and flight crew perished in the crash. A total of 75 lives were lost and it remains the worst sports related air disaster in US history.

Southern Airways Flight 932 Aircraft Wreckage
Southern Airways Flight 932 Aircraft Wreckage | Source

Willow Island Disaster

Along the Ohio River is the town of Willow Island. It is the home of a power plant that supplies electricity to much of the area. In 1978, construction was underway to expand the capacity of the plant, and an integral part of those improvements was the erection of additional cooling towers. The hyperbolic shaped towers are concrete construction and built with progress measured in feet upward per day. Once the previously poured concrete is cured, it is used to support more upward construction.

On April, 27, the second tower being built had reached a height of 166 feet. Large buckets of concrete were being hoisted by cranes for the workers on scaffolding. The cable lifting the third bucket of the day went slack and the crane began falling towards the inside of the tower. The previous day's pour of concrete had not been allotted enough time to cure and did not hold up to the stress. Concrete began to unwrap and a mix of construction materials and scaffolding fell inside the hollow of the cooling tower. All 51 workers on the scaffolding fell to their deaths.

Willow Island memorial
Willow Island memorial | Source

Election Day Flood

In late October, 1985 the remnants of tropical storm Juan slogged its way north and hooked up with another storm brewing in the southeastern United States. Meanwhile, in West Virginia, the impending precipitation and mountainous terrain were poised to allow the incoming rain to cause numerous rivers to experience 100 year flooding events.

By the time election day on November 5 rolled around, many portions of West Virginia had received 8 inches of rain in 24 hours. Many rivers reached record flood levels and the destruction and damage of property was widespread. The flood claimed 38 lives throughout the state, but is remember as much for its devastating destruction that wiped out entire towns as the deaths it caused. It remains West Virginia's costliest flood.

Flooded WV town
Flooded WV town | Source

The Aquapocalypse

When you live in a chemical production hub, it is never good when there is a strange odor in the air. But that is what residents around West Virginia's capital of Charleston woke up to on the morning of January 9, 2014. It turned out to be a massive leak from a 48,000 gallon storage tank of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM. The smell was only a small issue, the major problem was the MCHM was leaking into the Elk River; a mile upstream from the largest water treatment plant in the state.

The plant provides drinking water to 16% of the states population. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of people were without potable water. The president declared a federal emergency and national guard troops were used to truck in drinking water. Fortunately, this environmental disaster did not cause any deaths, but is noteworthy for the sheer scale of contamination and the weeks of disrupted supply of vital drinking water to a large swath of the state's population.

Chemical leak on the Elk River
Chemical leak on the Elk River | Source

Works Cited

MSHA: An Exhibit on Mining Disasters - 1907 Fairmont Coal, Monongah, W.V., arlweb.msha.gov/DISASTER/MONONGAH/MONON1.asp.

Annual and monthly tornado averages for each state (Maps).” U.S. Tornadoes, 28 Jan. 2017, .


Share Shinnston Tornado.” West-Virginia-Encyclopedia-Text, www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/398.

The Hawk's Nest Tunnel Disaster: Summersville, WV.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, www.nps.gov/neri/planyourvisit/the-hawks-nest-tunnel-disaster-summersville-wv.htm.

Thomas, Carson R., and Timothy R. Kelley. “A Brief Review of Silicosis in the United States.” Environmental Health Insights, Libertas Academica, 2010, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2879610/.

Emily Gallagher | Times West Virginian, et al. “Today marks 47th anniversary of the Farmington Mine Disaster.” Times West Virginian, 20 Nov. 2015, www.timeswv.com/news/today-marks-th-anniversary-of-the-farmington-mine-disaster/article_c8beb5fe-8f6b-11e5-a37a-4f22c11b9c6f.html.

Thornhill, Bob Powell Gail. “The Silver Bridge Collapses Killing 46: December 15, 1967.” West Virginia Public Broadcasting, wvpublic.org/post/silver-bridge-collapses-killing-46-december-15-1967#stream/0.

Silver Bridge.” Silver Bridge, www.transportation.wv.gov/highways/bridge_facts/Modern-Bridges/Pages/Silver.aspx.

MSHA - Dam Safety Home Page, arlweb.msha.gov/DamSafety/DamSafety.asp.

The Flood, www.wvculture.org/history/buffcreek/buff1.html.

43 years later, Marshall still honors memory of fallen players.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 14 Nov. 2013, ftw.usatoday.com/2013/11/marshall-football-anniversary-morning-win.

Thompson, Kristy D. “Failure of Cooling Tower West Virginia 1978.” NIST, 6 Jan. 2017, www.nist.gov/el/failure-cooling-tower-west-virginia-1978.

Share Flood of 1985.” West-Virginia-Encyclopedia-Text, www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/2197.

Osnos, Evan. “Chemical Valley.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 10 July 2017, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/04/07/chemical-valley.


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