<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=192888919167017&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">
Thursday,  May 30 , 2024

Linkedin Pinterest
News / Nation & World

At a cemetery in West Virginia, a massive landslide wiped out more than a hundred headstones. What happens next isn’t clear.

By Megan Guza, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Published: April 13, 2024, 2:00pm
3 Photos
Family members check on the graves of relatives in the Wheeling Mt. Zion Cemetery Saturday, April 6, 2024, following a landslide earlier this week caused by heavy rainfall  in and around Wheeling, West Virginia.
Family members check on the graves of relatives in the Wheeling Mt. Zion Cemetery Saturday, April 6, 2024, following a landslide earlier this week caused by heavy rainfall in and around Wheeling, West Virginia. (Sebastian Foltz/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS) Photo Gallery

WHEELING, W.Va. — The thick, brown swath of mud and debris cut starkly across the neatly trimmed green hillside.

Days of rain last week pushed creeks and streams over their banks, but it thoroughly saturated the ground, too. And eventually the steep incline along Fairmont Avenue in Wheeling let loose, sending hunks of hillside and mud downward.

The mass came to rest at the bottom of the steep hill, a couple of dozen yards from a small stream and rusty guardrail that separate the Wheeling Mt. Zion Cemetery from the two-lane road.

Among the tangled mess of trees and dirt piled at the bottom: the flat edges and rounded corners of headstones.

When the slope collapsed, it rolled over some 150 of them, dragging and pushing the grave markers down the hill with the chunks of earth.

Charles Yocke points out that if you look closely, green grass can be seen beneath the muddy path of the slide. That’s good, he said — it means the debris slid down the hill rather than cutting through it. The vaults beneath the headstones, then, likely are undisturbed.

Yocke is president of the Wheeling Mt. Zion Cemetery Corp., a group he and a few other volunteers formed nearly a decade ago to take care of the centuries-old cemetery. Through donations and burial fees — burials that Yocke does himself — the group maintains the landscaping and other upkeep.

The call came Wednesday morning.

On Saturday, he pointed to the top of the hillside overlooking the cemetery. See that house? Across the street from that is where Yocke’s friend from school lives.

“He called (Wednesday) at 7:30 a.m. and said, ‘Yock’ — because he knows I take care of it — he said, ‘Yock, you got a mudslide up here, you’ve got a big problem.”

The slide had started at the top of the hill and split into a pair of smaller paths at the base of a massive pine tree. He saw the smaller of the two sides first.

“I seen that side and said, ‘Oh, (expletive),’” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

He pulled around to the main gate of the cemetery, rain still falling hard against the roof of his truck.

“And I looked at it and thought, ‘What the hell are we gonna do?’ And for a grown man, how much time I’ve put into this — I started crying.”

He’s still in disbelief Saturday as he takes in the sight from across the road.

“I’ve seen so many slips,” he says, his voice trailing off.

‘It’s hard to think about’

Melissa Miller and her mother usually visit Wheeling Mt. Zion a few times a year. Miller lives in Columbus, Ohio, but she was raised in Wheeling. Her grandparents and great-grandparents are buried there, and so is an aunt and a nephew who died at birth. When they visit, they take care of the area around the graves, and they sit and talk with their late family members.

On Saturday, they came to assess the damage.

“Where it stopped, they’re right beneath it,” Miller said of the graves of her grandparents and great-grandparents. “If it continued to slide, they could have been more impacted, but thank goodness they’re at the bottom.”

Her aunt’s grave, though, was farther up the hill, she said, right in the path of the slide.

“We’re heartbroken over my aunt being … in that,” she said, gesturing toward the jumble of earth.

She said it’s a helpless feeling because, for safety reasons, no one is permitted in the cemetery right now. Yocke and Stein, on the advice of the fire department, put up no-trespassing signs. On Facebook, they warned: Stay out of the cemetery.

As Miller and her mother stood at the guardrail and looked at the mess, a man walked his dogs onto the property from the other side. From his spot across the road, Yocke yelled at the white-haired man to get out.

The man shouted back that he was looking for his uncle. Yocke told him to get out for his own safety.

“I’m not trying to be ignorant,” Yocke said. “It’s not safe. He’s pointing at me. I should go talk to him.”

He approached the would-be trespasser, who choked back emotion.

“It’s hard to think about,” he told Yocke.

As Yocke explained that the hillside hadn’t been stabilized, the man cut in: “I’m 70, I don’t care.”

“I’m not trying to give you a hard time,” Yocke said. “We don’t want nobody killed.”

Going to rest in a good place

Yocke lives near the cemetery on the same road, and his wife’s parents are buried a good distance up the hillside. It was Mother’s Day in 2015, he said, and the grass across the graveyard was three feet tall. He had to cut a path for his wife to place flowers at her mother’s grave.

“I went home that night and I just thought, ‘This is bull (expletive),’” he said.

The cemetery was owned by Ohio County, and commissioners said they wouldn’t spend taxpayer money for upkeep.

“What were these people?” he asked, gesturing toward the cemetery. “Taxpayers. They paid their taxes.”

So he and Fairmont Avenue neighbor Paula Stein began cutting grass and trimming the weeds around the headstones. Eventually, they formed the Wheeling Mt. Zion Cemetery Corp. They started a Facebook page to collect donations to pay for gas for the mowers and weed-cutters.

They put up an American flag at the main gate. There are about 400 veterans — some from as far back as the Civil War — buried in Wheeling Mt. Zion. Each and every one of those graves is marked with a small flag.

“They say you’re only supposed to do it at certain times, but the way I look at it, and the way Paula looks at it, is those guys went out and fought for us 365 days a year,” he said. “They should have a flag 365 days a year.”

The number of volunteers has ebbed and flowed over the years, and at this point, Yocke said, the work falls mainly to himself and Stein, whose parents are buried there.

It has been a labor of love, he said, and it’s taken a toll. He’s a contractor by day, and his knees have gone bad and his right shoulder is no good.

He’s not sure what will happen once he and Stein can’t take care of the cemetery anymore.

“We think about it all the time,” he said.

A man slows his sedan to a stop in front of Yocke near the cemetery, not bothering to pull off the road. Yocke tells him he’s doing an interview. The man jokes that he better tell the truth.

“I’ll lie and go to confession tomorrow,” he shouts back.

“I’ll just give you 10 Hail Marys and three Our Fathers now,” the man said. He’s not a pastor, just a mayoral candidate, Yocke says. He’s done contracting work on the man’s house in the past

There are hundreds of graves across the property, and a handful of people are still buried there each year, usually in family plots. Yocke takes care of the burials himself. He charges $750 to bury an urn and $1,150 for a traditional burial. He lines up the date and time and has a man he knows dig the hole with an excavator. He invites the family to add a shovelful of dirt to the hole.

“I think that’s what keeps on making me stay,” he said. “Because when I do a burial, the family is sad, but they see (their loved one is) going to rest in a good place.”

The money from the burials goes toward upkeep. Just last year he paid $5,000 to have a fallen tree limb cut up and hauled away.

There have already been myriad offers of help with the cleanup from the mudslide last week, Yocke said, including from state politicians.

“Everybody’s got a lot of talk,” he said, noting that it’s an election year. He hopes that means that those offers of assistance from higher up will come to fruition.

Other offers of help also pour in. Friends with small excavators have told Yocke they’re ready and willing, and many have offered to come armed with shovels.

“This ain’t no shovel job,” he said.

The mailman pulls over about 11 a.m. Saturday, stopping to chat and hand over the cemetery corporation’s mail.

“One, two, three …” Yocke counts the small envelopes, most covered in cursive scrawl. There are six of them — six donations that people have sent to help.

Recovering from the devastation will be a process.

The first thing will be to stabilize the hillside. Engineers who work with drilling companies are coming to look things over Monday, Yocke said. The hope is they’ll be able to do some of that work for free.

The tougher part will be sifting through the debris to see what’s a rock and what’s a headstone. Each headstone will have to be pulled out and cleaned, meaning they’ll all likely need to be hauled to another part of the cemetery for evaluation.

They might have to bring in someone to use x-ray machines to figure out where the vaults are. But then they have to make sure they know who is in the vault. There are lots of photos of the hillside, he said, and he’s familiar with where most of the graves were since he was the one cutting the grass for years. On Facebook, followers were already offering up historical maps of the cemetery.

“The most delicate part is putting the stones right back on the same spot,” he said. “I think that’s going to be the biggest part.”

Stay informed on what is happening in Clark County, WA and beyond for only

He said a lot of people have been aggressive toward them on the corporation’s Facebook page. They want to know whether their loved one’s headstone was affected. Yocke said he has to tell them that’s something that has to be set aside until the hillside is stable.

Some have accused Yocke and Stein and other volunteers of causing the landslide.

“You’ve gotta blame somebody,” he mused. “But I think you better blame Mother Nature.”

She can be cruel.

“We put all that sweat and tears in,” he said, “and one day Mother Nature takes it away from you.”