BELMONT COUNTY, OH (WTRF) – It was originally called the Shadyside Flood. But later, people recognized it as the Wegee Creek, Pipe Creek and Cumberland Run Flood.
June 14, 1990—Flag Day—dawned bright and sunny, but it ended with 26 deaths.
“I’ll remember it for the rest of my life,” said Dick Quinlin, the Belmont County EMA coordinator at the time. “We were down there. We could hear people crying for help.”
Some images are burned into our memories.
“The thing that sticks in my mind was the silo on Wegee,” said Kurt Turner. “The rest of the farm was washed away, but there was the silo.”
And the smells.
“The smell of death,” Turner noted. “The smell of chemicals, gasoline, oil.”
The storm hit at about 6:30 that Thursday evening. By Friday morning, hundreds of people were unaccounted for.
Officials had a list, separating the missing from the dead.
“They would scratch the names off as they found them,” Turner recalled. “And then they would notify one of the counselors.”
The dead ranged from children to grandparents.
“With 60-year-old adults, it’s sad, but they’ve had a life,” said Chuck Vogt, the county coroner’s investigator at the time. “The kids never had a chance to have a life.”
One mother came to command central every day.
“Every day when I walked into Jefferson School, she was there,” recalled Vogt. “She would ask me if we had found her daughter yet.”
Days later, her daughter was found dead. Another girl washed up along the river, alive.
“And we wrapped her in a blanket, and I was able to take her to Jefferson School to her parents,” Vogt said. “That was a good day.”
Notifying families of their loved ones’ deaths was the hardest part.
“It was terrible,” said Turner, who worked with the county EMA at the time. “The people knew there was that possibility. But they kept holding out hope against hope.”
It took six weeks before all 26 bodies were found in the mud and debris. First responders comforted the grieving.
“One woman who lost a child held onto me so hard, I thought my ribs would break,” recalled Quinlin.
He said when people wept, he wept with them. These days, Kurt Turner helps debrief traumatized first responders, with his Critical Incident Stress Management team.
He said he still hears from people who worked during that flood.
“Something like that—with young people and the amount of destruction of bodies—it was just terrible,” Turner said. “It still does affect a lot of people.”
Some things, like rain or storms, still trigger nightmares.
“This week, a storm went through the county, and I could smell those smells all over again,” Quinlin said.
But there were good moments too.
They said they saw lights flashing 20 feet under water, and realized it was a car with its four-way flashers on. Days later when they were able to get to it—it was empty.
Its driver had abandoned the car and run to higher ground, but only after carefully putting on the flashers and locking the doors!
“I asked her why she did that,” Quinlin recalled with a smile. “And she said, ‘I don’t know, just force of habit, I guess!’ And we laughed. You have to laugh a little bit, even in sad times.”
Now Wegee Creek only runs ankle deep. But its casualties are never forgotten.