Beth Goodwin remembers rain falling like buckets, lightning so bright

Beth Goodwin,Treasurer for the Oakland Museum was on hand Saturday to guide visitors to the Hurricane Camille exhibit.(Photo by Lee Luther Jr.)

One of the things Beth Goodwin remembers most about Hurricane Camille was the lightning.

“The lightning flashed and flashed and flashed,” Goodwin, 81, said of the storm that hit Nelson County that night in 1969. “The people that were out in it said they didn’t need a flashlight; they could almost see.”

As the rain came down in buckets — in some places at least 31 inches in 8 hours — those who were outside had to cover their mouths to stay alive, she said.

“They had to make themselves a pocket of air to breathe,” Goodwin said, putting one hand above her mouth like a shelf. “Otherwise, they would have drowned like a chicken.”

Goodwin, like many other Nelson County residents, had heard about Hurricane Camille when it made landfall in the Gulf Coast and laid waste to places like Pass Christian, Mississippi. But she never imagined the impact it would have on her and her neighbors.

And as the hurricane made its way toward Central Virginia, Goodwin heard it likely would bring more rain during what had already been a wet summer. But that was it.

“We heard the storm was lessening,” she said. “We were just going to get some rain but not excess rain, no heavy rain. Just remnants of it.”

The rain started in the early evening of Aug. 19, and increased to the point that water started coming in around the windows of Goodwin’s house in Lovingston, where she lived with her husband J.W. and children, Betsy, 7, and Jay, 4.

“That should have given us a little signal,” she said, adding it was “unusual” for that to happen.

The rain steadily increased from about 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., and at about 2:30 a.m., the power and the phone died. Then things got worse.

“That’s when the lands gave loose,” Goodwin said. “The avalanches started, and the rivers had already gotten out of their banks.”

The situation was especially dire in the Massies Mill and Tyro communities, about 12 miles west of Lovingston. Goodwin had grown up in Tyro, and her parents, William and Elizabeth Massie, still lived there.

In his book about Hurricane Camille, “Roar of the Heavens,” author Stefan Bechtel writes about what happened to Massies Mill and Tyro.

“ … No place in Nelson County, it seemed, had been more badly hammered than the little towns of Massies Mill and Tyro, on the Tye River, at the foot of the four-thousand-foot crests of the Blue Ridge,” Bechtel writes.

“The unimaginable amounts of water that had fallen overnight had been focused and concentrated by the great drainage basins of the mountains, dumped into the branching and arterial network of creeks and rivulets that fed into the Tye, and then hurtled downstream, and down the mountain into the sleeping hamlets below.

“The hydraulic force of this blow had nearly wiped Massies Mill off the map.”

Goodwin’s property sustained no damage, but the day after the storm, stories started filtering into Lovingston about those who weren’t so lucky. She heard people she’d known since childhood — members of the Raines, Staton and Zirkle families — were among the missing and the dead.

Goodwin’s parents weren’t listed among them.

“Mother and Father lived at Tyro, three miles above Massies Mill. We couldn’t get up there,” she said. “There was no way to call, no way to know how they were.

“Later in the day, we heard a family one mile above them, the Statons, had been completely wiped away — house, mother, father, daughter. A mile above that, another family, the Zirkles, — house, everything went down the river. The Zirkles and the Statons both were neighbors of my parents. … That made me anxious to find out how my parents fared.”

Goodwin wouldn’t learn her parents survived until late on the night of Aug. 20.

AMH 0911 Camille - US 29 Ruckers Run 3.jpg

A vehicle in the water of Rucker's Run creek along U.S. 29. just south of Nelson County High School. The car contained four passengers. Three survived by swimming to safety. One, Cecil Graves, 30, of Danville, was killed.

“It wasn’t until that night, around midnight, that two teenage boys, who had been recruited to go into the helicopters on the rescue team … came by my house and knocked on the door and said my parents were alright,” she said.

Her parents refused to be evacuated, though, the boys told her.

“Their house was OK, and my daddy ran the store, post office and mill and he wasn’t going to leave because he was afraid of looting,” Goodwin said. “He wasn’t going to leave government property.”

William Massie — “Captain Billy” to most everybody — operated a general store and served as Tyro’s postmaster. In his book, Bechtel writes about what Captain Billy saw when he walked outside the morning after the storm.

In Nelson County, “people were waking up to a world that had gone so badly wrong that even thirty years later, many would still choose not to speak of it,” he wrote. “Over in Tyro, the man known to everybody as ‘Captain Billy’ Massie had had his lawn mowed by a teenager the night before. He stood out there in the early evening, admiring the new-mown grass, thinking how pretty it looked in the golden light.

“He went to bed as his usual hour but was wakened in the night by the storm, walked downstairs and stood at the head of the basement stairs, dumbfounded, as his entire basement filled with water in five minutes. A calm and unexcitable man, he’d rolled up the rugs in the living room, dragged them up onto the stairs, and gone back to bed.

“But now, when he walked outside his home in the morning light, he was surrounded by a completely disorienting sight. His new-mown lawn was buried under two feet of mud. The Tye River, which normally flowed past his house on the opposite side of the road, was now behind his house.

“The road itself seemed to have disappeared. Sprawled in the front yard was the dead body of a man. And further away, where the road used to be, were the bodies of two women, their ears, noses, and mouths filled with muddy gravel. Grisly scenes like this were repeated all across the county. At first, nobody grasped the magnitude of what had happened.”

Goodwin and her family made it to Tyro the next day.

“We had to go all through pig paths and different ways to get up there, to avoid the bridges that had been washed out,” she said.

“When we got up there, we found out the river at Tyro, the Tye River, had jumped its course and had gone behind our house and between the house and the store. We had to cross the river to get from the store to the house.”

1969 Camille 29 at Ruckers run.jpg

Looking north along U.S. 29 at Rucker's Run.

Despite the devastation and loss, there was a moment of levity. While crossing the river back to their car, which was parked at the store, Goodwin’s daughter Betsy lost a flip flop.

“She lifted her foot and the flip flop went down the river,” Goodwin said.

“If she had lost a piece of gold she wouldn’t have been more upset. She remembers the flip flop and being upset. She had to go home with one flip flop on and one off. That’s her vivid memory of crossing the steam and losing that flip flop.”

Today, Goodwin is a docent at Oakland — The Nelson County Museum of History, which includes an exhibit about Hurricane Camille and its victims.

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Ramsey is a freelance writer who lives in Lynchburg.

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