Newfound, NC Dam Break Kills Four, Feb 1976


Asheville, N.C. - (UPI) - An earthen dam perched atop a mountain ruptured Sunday and sent a wall of water crashing into the Newfound community 1,600 feet below, killing four members of a family in their sleep.
Water from the lake, carrying large boulders and trees with it, roared one mile down a ravine without warning about 2:30 a.m. EST, crushing the house of BUD LEDBETTER.
LEDBETTER, his wife, their 15-year-old son, LESLIE, and 77-year-old MRS. SAVANNAH LEDBETTER were killed. Another son, Allen, 20 escaped injury.
There were no other reports of injuries. Two National Guard helicopters were summoned to search for other possible victims, however, as there were reports campers may have been in the area 15 miles west of Asheville near the Buncombe-Haywood County line in the southwestern corner of the state.
"It was just a big roaring sound, like a wind was coming up on us from far away," said Mrs. Wayne King, whose house just across the road from the LEDBETTERS was left untouched.
"It just kept getting louder and louder," she said. Mrs. King and her husband and two young sons jumped into the family car and sat helplessly in their driveway honking the horn as the water rolled by 10 feet from their house.
"It just came so sudden. We couldn't see anything. We just sat in the car until the water got down real low and then we all went in and started making phone calls," she said.
The Kings were awakened by two friends who spotted a trickle of water on the road as they drove past the house.
"We just grabbed our kids and got out," said Mrs. King. "It's just by the grace of the good Lord that we're alive."
Officials said a 15-foot-high, 50-foot-long section of the 75-foot long dam was ripped away following thunderstorms which dumped up to 1.75 inches of rain in the area.
A preliminary inspection showed the bottom of the 12-year-old dam was waterlogged and shifted forward during the night, causing the upper level to topple over.
"I assume that the reason for it was, either the way the dam is constructed or there was too much water in the dam," said Civil Preparedness Director William Perrigo.
Later Sunday, officials evacuated about 100 homes before the dam, fearing the rest of the structure holding the three acre lake might give way. But residents were permitted to begin returning home after state dam safety engineers managed to open a drain valve on the lake, easing pressure on the 50-foot high dam.
The National Weather Service said the chance of additional rain Sunday was slight.
The Rev. Jackie Collins, paster of Zion Hill Baptist Church, said the water "hit with such force that it ripped up four inches of asphalt with boulders the size of men just coming through."
"The walls and roof of the LEDBETTER home collapsed as the house was pushed off its foundation and washed away," he said.

York Daily Record Pennsylvania 1976-02-23