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Scenes from Agnes: Residents remember the June 1972 flood

Residents of Northeast Pennsylvania saw surreal scenes during and after the flood in 1972 as a result of Tropical Storm Agnes.

This story originally aired on Keystone Edition Radio on June 19.

When Tropical Storm Agnes flooded the Wyoming Valley in 1972, the overflowing river washed meat out of delis, unearthed coffins from cemeteries, postponed weddings and left family pets scrambling in houses filling up with water.

The Elias family

Kim Elias was 9 years old when Agnes hit Pennsylvania. She recalls her parents and neighbors in the kitchen listening to the news on the radio in their Kingston home.

The adults were starting to worry.

Even though she was relatively young, Elias said her family jokes that she has the best memory out of her siblings. She’s one of six children.

When the civil defense siren sounded, the Elias family started to evacuate their neighborhood. Everyone was ready to leave except her two older brothers, Ralph and Sam. The family loaded the car, but her brothers stayed behind to stack sandbags at the Susquehanna River’s edge in Kirby Park.

Elias spoke with her brother Sam in anticipation of her interview with WVIA News. He and Ralph were volunteering at the dike when they got a warning.

“All he remembers is somebody said ‘Get the hell out of here — the dike is breaking’,” she said.

Elias said her brothers hitched a ride in the flatbed of an Army truck. They rode up Main Street in Edwardsville and headed to higher ground at their aunt’s house, where the rest of the family was waiting.

“We were very fortunate, it just missed our second floor,” Elias said of the family home in Kingston. Many neighborhood businesses were wrecked, including Goldstein’s Deli.

“There were sticks of salami and all kinds of things hanging from the cherry tree,” she said. “These things that you’d see… you can’t make these things up.”

Once the Elias family was able to return to their home, they used the outside hose and bleach to clean indoors. To this day, every time she smells bleach Elias is taken back to the 1972 flood.

Her parents’ demeanor while waiting for her brothers to return from the dike is imprinted on her.

“To see the fear on my parents’ faces as a 9-year-old, it was something that I’ve never, ever seen since,” Elias said.

The Volinskis

Walter and Diane Volinski scheduled their wedding for June 24, 1972. They planned the wedding 54 weeks in advance, but the coming storm had other intentions.

Walter Volinski was between his junior and senior year at what was then Wilkes College in June 1972. At that point, he and his now-wife Diane didn’t live together.

“We had an apartment in Forty Fort on Bedford Street. We weren’t living in it yet, but it was prepared for us to live in,” he said. “I was staying at it the night of the 23rd.”

Volinski had crossed the Susquehanna River to reach Wilkes-Barre. He was adding sandbags to the dike at the Dorothy Dickson Darte building at Wilkes College. After volunteering, he decided to check on his family. They were at his mother’s house on Mary Street in Buttonwood.

Suddenly, he heard the sirens blow.

“Back then we didn’t have cell phones, so we couldn’t communicate, my wife and I,” he said. “So, we just assumed that we will not get married the next day.”

Volinski said the couple expected about 150 guests at their wedding that weekend. He supposed the guests also assumed there would be no celebration.

Once the waters finally receded, Volinski made his way back to Forty Fort to check on the second floor apartment in which the newlywed couple planned to live.

“Fortunately when I got there, [the flood water] didn't quite make it all the way up to the second floor,” he said. The couple’s belongings were spared, but their landlord who lived on the first floor wasn’t as lucky.

Their apartment on Bedford Street was just a few blocks away from the Forty Fort Cemetery on the banks of the Susquehanna River There were reports of caskets floating along the town’s streets in the flood waters.

“I didn't see any bodies, but I saw a few coffins. One was actually in our backyard on Bedford Street,” Volinski said.

An event hall in Pringle had a cancellation later that summer, and the couple set up a new wedding 42 days after their original date on August 5, 1972.

Volinski joked he should’ve known better than to go ahead with the wedding after the flood canceled their original plans.

“I kept looking up at the sky and asking God to send me an omen whether I should get married or shouldn't. So I never looked down, I always looked up,” he said. “So, he sent me a flood and you know, the rest is history. I should have been looking down.”

Despite the “omen,” the Volinksis will be married for 50 years in August.

Just before Agnes hit Northeast Pennsylvania, bride-to-be Diane Volinski went to stay at a family friend’s house in Edwardsville when she realized her own home might be in the flood zone.

She recalled that her family underestimated the amount of damage to come.

“My mother [was] reminiscing about the 1936 flood,” Diane Volinski said. “‘It only came up three feet in the kitchen,’ this and that. So we left our two cats down in the house.”

By Friday afternoon, however, Diane Volinksi said the water was already quickly rising. A few men in Edwardsville had a boat and offered to save her wedding gown from her house. They secured her dress, but couldn’t find the veil. The men reported back that there was already roughly three feet of water in her family home.

“Then Saturday, we went down to stand on Main Street in Edwardsville,” Diane Volinski said. “They were looking for people who wanted to go down to their house, and we wanted to go because we had two cats down there.”

To get into the house, they went in through the front window.

“By that time, [the flood water] was level with the beds on the second floor,” she said.

Luckily, her two cats Sassy and Penny were safe, but Volinski said she couldn’t believe the scene. One cat was hiding in the closet, and the other one was floating in a litter box.

“We walked through all that yucky water to find the kitties,” said Diane Volinski, recalling sitting others looking for pets in nearby homes while sitting in the back of the boat. “Somebody went to another house and brought in a German shepherd. And I thought ‘Oh no!’”

The vendors that the Volinskis had hired were dealing with problems of their own. The original location for their reception was the Swoyersville American Legion. The couple believes the Legion must have given the food away.

“These people had food prepared. Our cake was already baked,” Walter Volinski said. “[The bakery] must have donated it to somebody.”

The Volinskis hadn’t paid in full for goods and services, but they had put down deposits. Almost every business returned their payments.

“None of these entities cared about the money,” he said. “This is how people cooperated back then.”

Shortly after the flood, the newlywed Volinskis moved around the region and ended up briefly in Bloomsburg. They returned in 1977, and they’ve been in the Wyoming Valley ever since.

Corrected: June 22, 2022 at 9:57 AM EDT
A previous version of this story included an incorrect number of children in the Elias family.
Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's Morning Edition. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.
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