Scott Hamilton, grandson and son of two heroes during the ‘77 flood shared their story, which was also published in the Charleston Gazette on the 25th anniversary of the disaster.
Robert McCoy, his grandmother, mother, wife and daughter were on the second floor of his mother’s home, along with some neighbors who had taken refuge there after fleeing their homes.
The McCoy home had been safe during the many other floods that had plagued the area, but not this one. It was one of the worst floods in the state’s history, destroying about 1,500 homes, damaging 5,000 and causing more than $200 million in damage.
The river rose 30 feet over its banks and 10 feet above flood stage and carried trailers, automobiles and a leaking fuel tanker down the river, some of which hit the home as they traveled downstream.
Bill Call, Gerald Epling, Monty Hamilton, Virgil Hamilton and Billy Rogers, five Matewan men, rescued between 25 and 30 people who were stranded in their homes. Their biggest single rescue was at McCoy’s mother’s house, where they had to make three trips.
The men worked five hours, using Virgil Hamilton’s 18-foot Glastron boat with its 135-horsepower Evinrude motor, rescuing people from second-story windows and porches, taking them to high ground at Warm Hollow, returning for another load, then repeating the process.
Gerald Epling heard of women and children trapped on top of a building at about 10 p.m. He recruited Hamilton and the two decided to use Hamilton’s boat, “The Little Hawk,” which had been unused in the six months he had owned it. Hamilton’s son Monty volunteered to help before they found Rogers. Call was the first person they rescued and he joined their rescue efforts.
During one of their most difficult rescues, they had to turn the boat motor off and lift up a telephone line in their way to rescue a father and son trapped on a roof. The father and son were unharmed, but their home was torn apart and washed away.
The rescuers risked their lives that night, knowing they easily could have been washed away by the water. Amazingly, none of their family members was stranded and most of the people they rescued were acquaintances or strangers.
They didn’t see themselves as heroes, though their actions justify the label. They were able to maneuver the boat against the current and in the dark, not knowing what was floating under the boat. They dodged debris, trailers, automobiles, houses and buildings and kept the boat from overturning while loading and unloading people.
They felt like they just did what they were supposed to do.