Buffalo Creek 'miracle baby' tells story to Reader's Digest
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kerry Albright has told his dramatic story many times, but never to an audience so vast.
He was the apparently lifeless "miracle baby" pulled 40 years ago from the thick black muck left by a killing wall of filthy water and sludge in the Buffalo Creek Flood. His story appears in the January issue of Reader's Digest, a publication with more than 5.5 million subscribers.
"I've told the story my whole life. Little kids tell me they've studied about me in school. Law students learn about it as the first class-action suit filed on the basis of 'pain and suffering,'" he said of the far-reaching results of the flood that wiped out his home, most of his family and their hometown of Lorado.
The flood of wastewater and sludge that poured through a hole in the mining company's dams killed 125 people and left more than 4,000 homeless.
He was 9 months old when his mother, Sylvia Albright, and 18-year-old brother, Steven Albright, ran from their house after his brother spotted the wall of sludgy water barreling down their hollow. His mother made a split-second decision to toss Kerry Albright to higher ground as she realized she and her teenage son wouldn't survive the sucking mud and water that eventually pulled them under and killed them.
Immediately after the flood passed, residents combed the ruined valley looking for survivors. The town preacher and his son searched an area below the Albrights' home and heard a faint mewling sound. They saw what they thought was a doll's leg sticking up from the muck, pulled it out and realized it was a naked baby.
They wiped the thick mud out of his mouth with a handkerchief, probably not expecting much because 20 to 30 minutes had passed since the flood moved through, but the baby gasped for air.
"That's the actual miracle. I've tried to figure that out all my life," said Kerry Albright when asked what sound his rescuers could have heard when he obviously was incapable of crying out.
His tiny body, bruised and bloodied with a deep cut to the bone in his thigh, was nearly unrecognizable. The preacher wrapped him in a coat and took him to a nearby house, where he found Silvia Albright's cousin Katherine Ghent, a nurse.
She cleared his throat and mouth with two of her fingers in an ungentle motion that people without medical training probably would have thought to be too rough. It saved his life. The baby didn't make a sound, but he was alive.
"I was packed in mud for at least 20 to 30 minutes. It's unfathomable. I can't figure out how I survived," he said. Beyond a scar on his leg, Kerry Albright suffered no ill health effects from the experience. "I'd love to have an expert explanation. To me, it's a flat-out miracle."
His surviving son provided the impetus Robert Albright needed to recover from the loss of his wife, elder son and home. The Albrights had recently lost their eldest son, who was killed in military service in the Vietnam War. Not long after he died, the Albrights adopted Kerry Albright from a young relative who couldn't support him. Things were looking a bit brighter for the family. Steven Albright planned to attend college that fall and study music.
Then Robert Albright heard the terrifying news of the ravaging flood that had just passed when he emerged from his shift in the coal mine Feb. 26, 1972. As he made his way toward his house, which had been washed off its foundation, neighbors sadly told him that his wife and middle son had died. He assumed the baby was gone as well.
He stumbled to a nearby house and was stunned to find his infant son alive. After a harrowing journey to the hospital, Robert Albright didn't leave his young son's side for days. Doctors patched the baby up but didn't give much hope for his survival.
But the miracle baby pulled through, and Robert Albright took early retirement and disability from his job to care for him. He never returned to the coal mine and devoted himself to raising his little son. Raised in extreme poverty, Robert Albright was determined that the baby would have a better childhood than he had experienced.
He learned to cook, clean and sew. He saw to his son's every need. "He said he even had to learn how to rock a baby to sleep," Kerry Albright said.
He never remarried and chose the role of single father and caregiver at a time when men just didn't do that. He did it well, according to his son. People often ask Kerry Albright if he wished he'd had a mother growing up.
"I'm sure if I'd known her, it would have been tragic. But I never knew her," he said. "I didn't lack for a mother. I had about 20 mothers in Buffalo Creek. The community raises the kids there."
After living several years in a trailer provided by the federal government, the Albrights moved into a house built on the site of their former home.
Life went on
Kerry Albright left home at 18 after graduating from Logan High School to attend college as a theater major at Marshall University. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., today, an upbeat and positive man who spent his early career years performing around the world at theme parks and on cruise ships.
His first job in New York was as a bike messenger, then he worked in advertising, sales and consulting for several national magazines, as a mortgage loan officer on Wall Street and a tour guide at Radio City Music Hall.
In all those years, he returned often to visit his father, who died of throat cancer and black lung in 2000.
"My last words to him were 'I love you.' We always said that when we said goodbye," said Kerry Albright.
Although he was accustomed to interest in his son's survival story, his father probably would have been astounded to know how many readers it would reach 40 years later through Reader's Digest. Kerry was.
"I thought Reader's Digest was something you'd see at your grandma's house. I was floored to read that they're fourth or fifth in circulation in the nation," he said.
Kerry Albright thinks the magazine intended to run his story in the December issue in a section featuring miracle stories. The editors heard about him through an employee who researches stories and used to work with Kerry Albright in 2004. "She said that she always remembered the story and it immediately came to mind when the project came up," he said.
After he told his story, the editors decided it would fit better in the January "Drama in Real Life" section.
He realized that people might want to get in touch after reading his story -- they usually do -- so he set up a Facebook page for Kerry Lee Albright. The responses and letters he's read, mostly from strangers, have warmed his heart.
"I've answered everything that people have sent. I tell them I'm glad they enjoyed the story," he said.
"I always say my life is someone else's story. I have no memory of it. I grew up as part of a story I didn't know."
Reach Julie Robinson at email@example.com or 304-348-1230.