Susan Keays stands at the water’s edge and shades her eyes to better see an approaching boat. As she holds her cellphone, verifying an address, she quickly counts heads. One volunteer is missing. This morning, they were strangers. Now, they are a sort of family. She is on Memorial Boulevard, where kayaks and bass boats bob in a river that shouldn’t be. At first, she came to the edge of the flood to save horses. She is staying to save people.
Black ribbons fluttered in the breeze as a homemade pinwheel bearing 29 names turned slowly, lending a splash of color to an otherwise overcast day in southern West Virginia. Here, residents are still coming to grips with the state’s worst mining disaster in more than two decades. Part of that process continued Sunday, when President Obama spoke at a eulogy for the 29 coal miners who died in the accident.
For Tennessee firefighter Chris Copeland, responding to disasters is a way of life, but three days before Christmas, his world was shaken to its foundation when the rescuer found himself in a new role — survivor. Just after midnight Dec. 22, while Copeland lay sleeping, an earthen dike gave way on the north side of Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Kingston, Tenn. Within seconds, 5.4 million cubic yards of fly ash — a by-product of coal combustion — oozed into the Emory River, gaining speed until the glossy, debris-laden sludge roared through the Swan Pond area, leaving three homes destroyed and 42 damaged. Copeland says the sound was deafening; he thought it was a tornado.