Portrait of a Disaster: Retired VSP Trooper shares audio diaries from Hurricane Camille recovery

NELSON COUNTY, Va. (WDBJ7)-- Hurricane Camille's wrath in 1969 was violent, deadly and historic.

Trooper Ed Tinsley worked in Nelson County, helping with recovery efforts, for 27 days after the flood of 1969.

Remnants of the storm dumped 27 inches of rain over Nelson County. It is an unmatched moment in the region's history and it was a moment that, one Virginia State Police trooper knew, had to be documented.

"One day you will die and everybody is all gone. If you don't share it, it can't live on,” said retired VSP trooper, Ed Tinsley.

In 1969, Tinsley was a 32-year-old trooper. 50 years later, he is 82 years old and retired, but he still remembers the flood of ‘69 in great detail. If he ever has a slip in memory, he can just turn to his own words.

“This report begins for me on August 20, 1969,” a young Tinsley recounts via audio recording. The recording is the first entry in what Tinsley would call the “Portrait of a Disaster.”

“In listening to the traffic as I continued towards home I realized that we had something very big going on,” Tinsley tells a voice recorder in August of 1969.

Tinsley said It did not take long for him to determine the flood was an event that needed to be documented.

"I would go every night with my old reel-to-reel tape recorder, cut it on, and you got it,” said Tinsley.

TInsley worked in Nelson County for 27 days. He made 12 audio diary entries recording everything he saw: washed out roads, crumbling bridges, mudslides and concrete slabs where homes used to be.

"Every gully, every little valley, every low spot in the mountain had been washed out as if some giant claw had grabbed hold of it and pulled everything out of it,” Tinsley said, describing the shocking damage in 1969. “This was washed all the way down to solid rock. Everything gone.”

Tinsley’s job was to make rescues where he could, evacuate survivors, and recover the dead. According to Tinsley's recordings, the number of dead and missing would change almost every day.

"I get emotional sometimes thinking about some of the things that went on at the time, but one of the things that you adapt yourself to, and you have to, is you operate at 100%,” said Tinsley. “In some respects, this was a stress reliever. Putting down what happened that day. Recording it down, not just keeping it all up here."

The recordings are raw and unprovoked. In one entry he reflects on the countless people still missing, some to this day. Tinsley spoke of their loved ones who wanted to bury them with a monument to mark their bodies. Tinsley said he sees the mountains as that monument.

“This is something that will outlast any monument that any person on this earth could put out now. So my feeling is if part of my family was buried under this mass of trees and dirt, I feel like they would have been buried well and a monument erected which would be much better than anything I could do,”said Tinsley in his Aug. 26th entry. “This is the thought I have in mind as we end the seventh day and first week in my report on the Portrait of a Disaster.”

Tinsley said that he did not have much time to think about what he would record.

"I was just reciting what was on my mind. I think that is where we make a lot of mistakes we might think important things, but we don't say it,” said Tinsley.

On Aug. 21, Tinsley talks about two young brothers, Carl and Warren Raines , who became orphans overnight.

“In all of this tragedy, it gave me a real good feeling to realize that in the midst of this I was talking to the 14-year-old. He did not want to leave the scene,” recounted a young Tinlsey. “He was concerned about staying on the scene and making funeral arrangements for his mother and father and the other three brothers and sisters.”

Tinsley continuously talks about the people who worked together to help. He said the recovery efforts would have never been successful without the local people willing to help, even though they were dealing with tragedies of their own.

“As far as help was concerned, most everybody was just trying to figure out where they could go and what they could do to help,” said Tinsley.

He would stop recording September 5th. The official death count would rise to 125. Nelson County would return to a new normal, but Tinsley would never forget. He would make sure people always remember.

“My honest feelings are that there could never be an accurate description or record in the history books as to what goes on here and what has gone on here except what has been seen by my eyes and the eyes of the people who have been in it,” Tinsley recorded on Aug. 25, 1969. “If I record this now and tell it later, it will never be as great as what it has been my looking at it. I'm making this recording day by day just to keep a running record of what goes on in my Portrait of a Disaster."

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