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Under my hat: Recalling a Forty Fort nightmare

It’s something you’d expect from Alfred Hitchcock.

A river rises to 40 feet, breaks through a dike, rips apart 2,500 graves in a cemetery and deposits caskets and dead bodies on the streets of the living.

The storyline resembles the premise for a fictitious zombie movie. But it really happened in 1972.

We’re less than a year from the 50th anniversary of the Agnes Flood in Wyoming Valley. As a result, we can expect to hear lots more of those unprecedented times.

When then-President Richard Nixon toured the area, he called it “the greatest natural disaster in United States’ history.”

Media outlets are already working on special coverage and the horror of Forty Fort will earn extra attention.

I recently took a trip to the burial ground to see how it looks. For me, it was a visit to my past.

I lived 2 miles from the cemetery when I moved to Kingston in the late 1970s following the flood.

The area was still recovering from the disaster and I lived in a house that had been flooded all the way up to the second floor.

Because the destruction in Wyoming Valley was so total and widespread, $2.1 billion in damage, the cemetery tragedy became only a sidebar story.

But the passing of five decades has put things into perspective and, in retrospect, the details are shocking.

The brown swirling Susquehanna River carved through the dike’s earthen foundation, toppling a steel-corrugated wall, which simply collapsed like cardboard.

The wall of water then rushed into the cemetery and formed a huge swirling vortex that gouged a deep hole 4 acres wide.

All of the graves in that section were swept away. The floodwater carried vaults, caskets and human remains through Forty Fort and Kingston.

When the water subsided, the National Guard was summoned for corpse retrieval. Some accounts say 2,700 graves were lost.

The National Guard reportedly collected 1,410 vaults, caskets and remains. The rest were simply gone.

It was impossible to rebury bodies where they once were because geological damage prevented the cemetery from duplicating the original layout. The land had disappeared.

Instead, bodies were reinterred on high ground at Memorial Shrine Cemetery, about 6 miles away.

Naturally, the impact on affected families was tremendous. The heartbreak was, and is, shared by the community, a great little town of 4,500. It was founded in 1770 and is host to rich history. But it’ll forever be linked to the unimaginable event of 202 years later.

About 1982, on the 10th anniversary, a publication actually ran an original photo of one of the lost caskets as found in flood wreckage. The casket was resting almost vertically against debris on a Kingston street. The lid was partially open with a corpse dangling from it.

That image is seared in my mind. Such a photo would never see the light of day in a publication today. We live in a more sensitive time. And that’s a good thing.

Yet the image represented something very real. Bodies and caskets were found far away. Many others were never found. And, of course, some remains were never identified in those pre-DNA days.

Today, you can visit the cemetery and pay respects. You can look in awe at the wide expanse of land reconstructed where once tombstones were.

It’s left untouched. There are no more burials in that area.

Instead, there’s a tall, imposing monument, reading, in part, “To the memory of those whose grave sites vanished in that singular catastrophe.”

Contact Donald R. Serfass at dserfass@tnonline.com.

A monument and large expanse of grass now occupy the site at Forty Fort Cemetery where 2,500 graves were gouged out by floodwaters of 1972.
The bend in the Susquehanna River is where it broke though a dike, at right, and poured into the adjacent cemetery. Floodwaters then formed a large vortex and gouged out 2,500 graves. DONALD R. SERFASS/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
A U.S. Air Force worker pauses while assessing flood damage at Forty Fort Cemetery in 1972. PHOTO/THE GREAT FLOOD OF 1972.