- Associated Press - Saturday, April 29, 2017

SEWARD, Pa. (AP) - The Indiana County town of Robindale was once so tight-knit that many residents described it as “a family.”

But its inhabitants were scattered to the winds after the devastating flood of 1977 - until Saturday afternoon, when 230 former residents of the long-gone town gathered at the Seward fire hall to reconnect, mingle and reminisce.

Organizers of the reunion said they were amazed and pleased by the turnout.

“We were hoping for 100 people,” Jeff Harding said. “Then names started coming in, and we started hoping for 150.”

“At first, we were a little surprised,” Ann Harding Mardo, Harding’s sister, said, “but then they kept coming and kept coming and kept coming. I never thought we would have 230 people. It’s amazing.”

The reunion, which Mardo and her brother, Gregg Harding, advertised in a Facebook group for former Robindale residents, drew Robindale natives from North Carolina, Virginia and other far-flung destinations.

Mardo’s aunt made the long journey from Florida to attend.

“She hasn’t seen anyone (from Robindale) for a long, long time,” Mardo said. “It’s just a truly warm feeling between all the people that haven’t seen each other in all these years.”

Dolores Waters, who lived in Robindale in 1977 and now lives north of Johnstown on Chickaree Mountain, shook hands and chatted with a constant stream of long-lost friends and neighbors.

“I have so many friends here that I haven’t seen in such a long time,” Waters said. “There’s so many, there’s just so many. I have nieces and nephews I haven’t seen in a while, and my friends. … There’s so many of them.”

“I am really glad I came.”

Waters’ sentiments were echoed by many throughout the packed fire hall.

“A lot of us live around here, but we still don’t see each other,” Sue Anne Fatula said. “Some of them we haven’t seen in a long, long time - maybe 10 years, maybe 20 years.”

“I’m just so happy,” Mardo said. “It’s a wonderful day.”

‘A close-knit town’

Located along the Conemaugh River between Seward and New Florence, Robindale was developed in the early 1900s as a company town by the Conemaugh Smokeless Coal Co. Over the years, the village grew and prospered.

By 1977, Robindale had a church, a general store and nearly 100 homes, all sitting in the shadow of a row of bony piles - composed of waste from the nearby coal mines - and of the small power-generating station at the edge of the village.

“It was such a close-knit town,” Harding said. “Everyone was like one family.”

Mardo recalled idyllic childhood memories of Robindale - playing games on the streets, spending summer days at the baseball field, walking across a suspension bridge over the Conemaugh River to Seward for pizza.

The town hosted a fair in the summer and erected a community Christmas tree in the heart of town during the winter.

Harding said he hopes the reunion will help the children and grandchildren of former Robindale residents - many of whom weren’t born when the flood struck, or are otherwise too young to remember a town that’s been gone for 40 years - grasp what the town meant, and what it still means, to their parents and grandparents.

“We’re hoping that they get some part of what old Robindale was,” he said.

“If they weren’t part of Robindale, they really don’t know it, just what we - grandparents, parents - have told them. That’s unfortunate, because it was such a great place.”

‘Get the hell out of Robindale!’

On the night of July 20, 1977, heavy rains flooded the Johnstown area - 10 inches of rain fell in just 12 hours. The National Weather Service called the storm a once-in-1,000-years event. Streams and rivers - including the Conemaugh River, which bordered Robindale on three sides - surged over their banks, destroying nearby homes and businesses.

Above Johnstown, several small dams failed - in some cases with devastating consequences. When the Laurel Run Dam in West Taylor Township burst, the reservoir it had held back rushed through downstream Tanneryville, killing 40 people.

In total, the flood claimed 84 lives across the region.

In Robindale, the looming bony piles funneled the floodwaters directly across the town. In Harding’s words, Robindale “filled up like a bowl.”

“There was nowhere for it to drain,” Mardo recalled.

The waters rose slowly.

At first, Linda Green, who attended Saturday’s reunion with her mother Arline, didn’t take much notice of the storm. High water was a fact of life in the low-lying town, its residents recall.

“We thought we were going to have water in the basement,” Green said.

“We went down, and we put the dehumidifier in the washtubs and did stuff like that.”

Soon, however, Green got a phone call. The man on the other end of the line said, as she recalls, “Get the hell out of Robindale! The water’s coming!”

The caller turned out to be Green’s uncle, calling from Johnstown, which had already been devastated by the flood. His warning gave Green and her family enough time to move their cars to high ground and to get out of town.

They slept that night at a family member’s trailer in Armagh.

“We didn’t know until the next morning how bad it had gotten,” Green said.

As the waters rose, Jeff Harding, then 18, and three of his friends piled into a canoe and paddled through Robindale’s flooded streets, searching for anyone who needed rescuing.

Their efforts may have saved the life of John Glusko, who had scrambled into the attic of his single-story rowhouse to escape the flood. At Saturday’s reunion, Harding reminisced about the rescue with Glusko’s son, Tom.

“He punched a hole in the ceiling with a broomstick and climbed up into the attic,” Harding recalled.

Once the waters filled the first floor of his house, Glusko became trapped. Luckily, Harding and his friends heard his calls for help. They managed to knock a hole through the roof of his house, freeing him from the attic as the waters rose, and pulled him into their canoe.

“He was a big man. When he hit the boat … he flipped it, and we all went in the water,” Harding said. “When we got back in the boat, (Glusko) was gone.”

“I looked, and his bald head came bobbing up in the water, and I grabbed him - I wasn’t a big guy, I was 18 years old - but I grabbed the back of his pajamas and yanked. The boat tilted, and he came back in the boat, coughing up that flood mud.”

Glusko’s brush with death was “probably the only close call in Robindale” that night, Harding said: “Everyone else got out, because the way it hit Robindale was slow. It wasn’t like a wall of water.”

Seward, a few miles upstream, was less fortunate. Seven residents of the tiny Westmoreland County borough were killed in the flood - most in a single trailer park.

Fatula - who fled Robindale on foot with her 2-month-old daughter, her wheelchair-bound grandmother and several other family members - remembers looking in Seward’s direction as the waters rose. She saw an eerie orange glow on the horizon.

“We found out later it was trailers exploding,” she said.

At Saturday’s reunion, Fatula recounted her family’s rush to escape the rising flood. They waded through water that was chest-deep in places, bumping into floating obstacles that in the darkness seemed as likely to be dead bodies as anything else, and finally made it across a set of railroad tracks to high ground.

“It doesn’t hit you until later, what you went through,” Fatula said. “Once we were safe, and everybody had a chance to calm down, then you start to shake and you start to cry. ‘What am I going to do? Thank God we’re OK.’ Unreal. Just unreal. Forty years later, I remember it all.”

And everyone from Robindale has a similarly harrowing story, she added.

‘Everything was gone’

Green and her family tried to return to Robindale the morning after the flood - to no avail.

“We weren’t allowed in,” she said.

“We had to wait until they gave us the OK.”

Once residents were allowed to return to Robindale, Green - and everyone else in town - found that whatever they hadn’t been able to carry away with them had been destroyed. Some houses were buried under mud. The town’s church and part of its community center had been washed away entirely.

“We couldn’t drive into town, because there were cars on people’s porches and stuff,” Green recalled.

“When we opened up our front door, there was about this much flood mud” - she held her hand up to her shoulder - “that came from the bony piles.”

“All of our furniture had gone through the suspended ceilings, and everything was ruined. I mean, everything was gone.”

The mud that blanketed the town had a characteristic stench, Harding recalled: “All you could smell was this strange smell of hydraulic fluid permeating through the air.” Later, residents learned the odor came from the nearby mines, which had also been flooded.

Soon, the federal government announced that Robindale would not be resettled. Through an agreement with the government, Penelec and several other entities, residents were paid for their properties.

Many residents moved, a few years later, to a brand-new development called Robindale Heights, which was built using low-interest state housing loans. Residents initially were given trailers; later, many built their own homes there.

Rosella Rudnik, now 92, and her family - husband Harry, daughter Betty and grandsons Eric and Rodney - were the first ex-Robindale residents to move into a house in Robindale Heights.

In 1979, as her family celebrated Christmas in their new home, Rudnik told a reporter from the Indiana Gazette: “To tell you the truth, I just gave up a lot of times. I thought we’d never get here, but with the help of God, we made it.” Today, she keeps a copy of that article folded in her purse.

Around 25 Robindale families eventually moved to Robindale Heights.

Others, however, weren’t able to wait for Robindale Heights to be built - or simply had no desire to live there.

Some moved to Johnstown, or to Altoona, or out of western Pennsylvania entirely. The town drifted apart - and, until Saturday, had never been brought back together.

Penelec eventually acquired the remains of Robindale through a 1980 deal under which the utility reimbursed much of Robindale Heights’ construction costs. Much of that tract was elevated from the floodplain for the construction of what is now the coal-fired Seward Generating Station.

‘To preserve our story’

At Saturday’s reunion, Kelly Mack presided over a table of old photographs and yellowed newspaper clippings, depicting life in Robindale and the immediate aftermath of the flood.

Mack, Fatula’s daughter, was just 2 months old when her mother carried her out of town on the night of the flood. She doesn’t remember the brief time she lived in Robindale, but the town loomed large in the stories she was told as a child.

“Growing up, we always told stories about Old Robindale, and, ‘Oh, remember before the flood?’, and stuff like that,” Mack, a Seward resident, said.

But when Mack’s niece, a student at United Elementary School who was assigned to interview a flood survivor for a class project, asked Mack’s grandparents about what they experienced during the flood, Mack began hearing stories she’d never been told before.

That’s when Mack decided to create a documentary. Soon, she began interviewing those members of her family who were in Robindale that night.

“I wanted to make sure the rest of my family would have that story preserved,” she said.

Once the reunion was announced, Mack broadened her vision: “I thought, ‘I’ll just expand it from, not just my family, but to the whole Robindale family, to get all of their stories put together.’ “

Her goal is simple, she said: “To document the hard-working people of the area and the perseverance that everyone has here.”

Mack hopes to complete her documentary and to have it released early this summer, just in time for the 40th anniversary of the flood.

“I just want it to preserve our story,” she said. “I think everyone has an important life story to tell. They just don’t always realize it.”

“Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, my story’s not important,’ but … look around this room,” she went on, gesturing around at the packed fire hall. “There’s so many people who experienced so much and have overcome it. I think it’s a testament to our community and to the western Pennsylvania community at large, too.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2p9vEiI

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Information from: The Tribune-Democrat, https://www.tribune-democrat.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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