Toccoa community remembers deadly dam break

Published: Nov. 8, 2022 at 9:10 PM EST
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TOCCOA, G.A. (FOX Carolina) - Forty-five years ago, disaster struck a small college campus in Northeast Georgia.

Dozens of lives were lost.

The small community has not forgotten, but the stories of the catastrophic event aren’t widely known.

“It had rained almost all day,” Sam Thompson said, “I jokingly commented that I am so tired I think that dam could break and I wouldn’t wake up, and it was kind of surreal when it actually did.”

A stream flows through Toccoa Falls College campus, coming from from a beautiful 186 foot waterfall.

After several days of storms and flooding, the Kelly Barnes Dam collapsed, surging water over the falls.

Toccoa Falls Dam Break
Toccoa Falls Dam Break(Toccoa Record)

Thirty-nine people died and 60 were injured in the early morning hours of November 6, 1977.

Sam Thompson was a first semester student. “I had a guide dog at the time. I was the first blind student to ever go to the campus.”

Thompson could hear the destruction. “I heard the water coming down the canyon. It was snapping trees like toothpicks,” Thompson said.

His room on the first floor of Forrest Hall was in the direct path.

“One of my friends was running up and down the hall yelling the dam broke! Get out!” Thompson said, “I opened my door and stepped out into water. I realized that there was something serious going on.”

Sam Thompson, who lived through the Toccoa Falls dam break in 1977, recounts the event.

Thompson and his guard dog made it out just in time.

Others did not.

“There were three in the basement that did not make it,” Thompson said.

The dam break sent 175 million gallons of water rushing down the falls, hitting the lower campus around 1:30 in the morning. Many students, professors, and their families were sleeping when the tragedy struck.

The lake has dried up and the dam was never rebuilt.

While a lot has changed in 45 years, Thompson said it feels like it happened yesterday.

“I remember that time. It’s just something that you never really forget,” Thompson said.

A memorial beside Toccoa Falls honors the 39 lives lost. David Fledderjohann is one of those names.

“He was up there because he was the fire chief. They were trying to evacuate a lot of people there because they knew there were high rains,” Margaret Pinney said.

Margaret Pinney, who lived through the Toccoa Falls dam break in 1977, recounts the event.

Fledderjohann was driving to the dam when he realized it had failed.

His last order to the assistant fire chief was to go down to campus and sound the siren.

“He just drove that fire truck completely through the gates to break it down because he knew is pretty serious,” Pinney said, “Then he rang the bell in the middle of campus to try to wake people.”

Fledderjohann rushed to nearby homes to warn families.

“David actually was in the house down there in the floodplain that floods the worst. He and a professor and his wife were all caught in that house.”

At daybreak, Fedderjohann’s young boys woke up to their mom crying. Margaret Pinney remembers telling her four-year-old that his dad would not be coming home.

“He got mad. He said, I didn’t want daddy to die,” Pinney said.

The tragedy rocked the community of around 9,000 to the core.

“We had a lot of mass funerals,” Pinney said, “Some families had four or five children, and one of the spouses survived, and the other one didn’t, and all the children were gone.”

For this tight-knit community, life is about finding a calm after the storm.

Forty-five years ago disaster impacted the city of Toccoa forever

“My prayer was just simply, God why? I was standing there when a little robin flew to the top of the roof and sat there and started singing and it flew to that highest pinnacle, looked over that death and destruction, and did what was supposed to do. I thought, now that’s peace. That’s peace and that’s the kind of peace I what my life,” Thompson said.

News of the tragedy spread throughout the nation.

Georgia native and First Lady, Rosalynn Carter traveled to Toccoa Falls the next day to spend time on the ground with first responders.

President Jimmy Carter ordered the inspection of more than 9,000 dams across the country, changing regulations to prevent another tragedy from happening.

It's been 45 years since the life-changing day in a small Georgia town. For the first time, we're hearing from the reporter who covered the dam break