Yes, things have changed a lot in my hometown area since I was a kid. There are other big changes in the view from and on the farm where I grew up. From the top of the hill where the house we built sits, you can see the Pleasants Power Station.
You can’t miss it. The power plant looms large in the area these days. It’s located down the road a little ways in Willow Island, West Virginia.
It dominates the landscape, our history, and our memories. It looks serene enough in the above picture, but on April 27, 1978, it was the scene of the worst construction disaster in US history. That day is seared into the memory of people living in Pleasants County in much the same way the 9/11 disaster is seared into the country’s collective memory.
At the time, the second of the two 430-foot cooling towers for the new Pleasants Power Station was being built. The men worked on the next section of the tower from scaffolding attached to the previous pour of concrete.
Unfortunately, on April 27, 1978, the concrete was too green and hadn’t hardened enough to hold the scaffolding properly. Contractors were trying to speed up the construction, and in hindsight, it appears safety wasn’t given the priority it should have had. Key bolts meant to attach the scaffolding to the tower were missing, and other problems were found during investigations after the accident.
Bottom line, the scaffolding ripped out, leaving a scar on the tower about halfway up where a dark line marks the level the concrete failed. There’s another scar on the community as 51 men died that day, tumbling about 166 feet to their death.
Pleasants County became the unwanted focus of media attention. Many were not kind, and portrayed the people as ignorant hillbillies, yet they were the ones hiding in bushes to film funerals. They were relentless in their push to get a story and had no respect for the grieving family and friends of those 51 men. This cruel treatment and skewing of facts left yet another scar on the community.
In the following years, the construction was eventually completed and the towers put into operation. People living nearby then had a new problem – pollution. Fine ash settled over houses and cars. The power plant solved the problem by buying up the houses closest to the power station.
When Dad bought the house we’d built, he sold the old home place to the power company. As they did with all the other houses they bought, they destroyed it. In this case, the house was used as a training exercise for local firefighters and burnt down. I saw a picture of the house burning when we visited Dad last week. It had a powerful impact to see the house where I grew up in flames. I’m glad I wasn’t there to see it actually happen.
The story twists yet again, however. Where the house I was raised in once stood, there is now a memorial to those 51 men who died during the construction of the cooling tower the looms tall in the background.
Anthony Lauer, the grandson of one of the victims, Larry Gale Steele, raised $70,000 as a sixth-grade social studies project to build the memorial. The names of each of those 51 men who died is written on a bronze plaque attached to the memorial.
This tribute is a constant reminder of those men. It’s also a reminder of some of the many changes in my hometown.
You see, while it’s true no one can go “home” again, some people’s hometowns have changed more than others. And just maybe Pleasants county has seen more changes than most.