Anniversary of deadly flood stirs memories of faith, heroism


   November 6, 1977, began as most other Sunday mornings inside the parsonage of St. James UMC in Toccoa. My wife, Jane, and our sons, Ray and Jared, were fast asleep while I was sitting in the living room, putting the finishing touches on my sermon. 
      A phone call from church treasurer, Mary Dietz, interrupted the peace. The news was urgent. The dam at Toccoa Falls had burst. We were likely to lose water service.
      I hurriedly jumped in the shower and awakened Jane earlier than usual to get ready for church. Little did I know the breaking of the dam at 1:30 a.m. would claim 39 lives on the little campus of Toccoa Falls College. There would be several days ahead filled with tales of tragedy, heroism, and faith.
      By the time we gathered for worship, we had heard about some of the devastating consequences. Not only were many lives lost, but almost every building on the campus of the historic Bible college was either damaged or destroyed. Families that did not lose a loved one in the flood lost friends. Most had homes and possessions destroyed. The devastation was almost complete. What had been built in lifetimes was washed away in a few terrifying minutes.
    I was in my first fulltime appointment. Nothing in my past, or in my education, prepared me for such a moment. I doubt anything could. However, the great pastoral leadership of Rev. Clyde Lancaster, of Toccoa First UMC, rallied the church and civic community to minister to the needs of the victims, and especially to the families of Toccoa Falls Bible College. Rev. Lancaster taught me how to be a pastor in the most inexplicable circumstances, how to work ecumenically to address the needs of the community and how to deal with the secular media which descended on that beautiful mountain community. 
    A few days after the flood, Toccoa First UMC hosted a community-wide memorial service.  Rev. Lancaster assigned me the task of dealing with the media.  I had no idea how important this would be when tragedy struck my own family 19 years later.
     Several memories are indelibly etched on my mind:
·        A dad telling how his whole family, wife and children, were swept out of his arms in the deluge he alone survived. He later gave voice to the grace and comfort of the Savior he loved and served.
·        A first-responder from my church (now a UM pastor) telling about pulling the body of an infant out of the debris piled against the Hwy. 17 bridge.
·        A teen-age girl sharing her testimony in our worship service at St. James, telling how only she had survived and how God was caring for her in her great loss.
     During the weeks following the flood, I could not have been more proud of the United Methodist Church. Under the leadership of that phenomenal pastor, Clyde Lancaster, our connectional church surrounded the community with loving and caring and serving arms. We provided spiritual leadership, food, shelter, clothes, and theological understanding in the midst of such terrible grief.
      In the face of the cry, “Why do the righteous suffer?” Rev. Lancaster reassured the community of faith, as well as the faithless, in the midst of the suffering. He helped us experience and understand the presence and peace of Jesus.  He showed us this grace is sufficient for every need. He also helped us understand that God did not cause this tragedy and that no heart was more broken than the heart of God over the suffering of His children. He led us to the Great Shepherd of the sheep, who walked with us through the valley of the shadow of death.
      Rev. Lancaster was only one of the heroes to emerge from this horrible tragedy, but he was one of whom our United Methodist family should be justly thankful and proud.
     The United Methodist Church was there on the worst night to ever strike Toccoa, Ga.

Excerpt from The Atlanta Journal, Nov. 7, 1977:
      39 Die in Toccoa’s Raging Nightmare
 Toccoa, Ga. — The earthen dam above beautiful Toccoa Falls had been taken for granted for most of its 40 years. Through other winter and spring rains that come annually to the North Georgia mountains, the tree covered dam had held.
About 1:30 a.m. Sunday, after days of torrential rains, the dam started to leak. Groaning under the pressure of 129 million gallons of water, the leak became a breach, and the dam washed away, sending a 30-foot wall of water roaring through the trailer park and Bible college in the peaceful valley below.
In a few horrifying minutes, at least 39 men, women, and children died in the onslaught of rushing water, wreckage and mud.
Sometime after midnight, Eldon Elsberry, Ron Ginther, Bill Ehrensberger, and David Fledderjohann,  started knocking on the doors of trailers to warn residents of the rising waters. Only Elsberry and Ginther would survive the night.
With a crashing sound like a thunderstorm, a wedge-shaped wall of water some 30 feet high poured down the creek and shot over Toccoa Falls, tumbling huge boulders and tree trunks before it.
     The footbridge at the base of the falls vanished, as did the road that leads down the shoulder of the campus and across the creek to some recreational buildings. Just past the road, the creek makes a sharp left turn. On the outside of the bend sitsForrest Hall, with the windows of its basement rooms facing the stream. It was in that basement that three young men died. . . . Sweeping past Forrest Hall, the water churned through several houses, moved slightly to the right, or south, and washed headlong into [an area once known as] Trailerville.
[A short distance away] it was the highway bridge, straddling the creek just below the city’s hospital that contained the flood and kept it from wreaking havoc the length of the creek, Corps of Engineers workers said. Debris piled up against the bridge created a small dam, slowing the onrushing tide.
Dr. Warren Lathem is a retired district superintendent and former long-time pastor of Mount Pisgah. You can reach him by email at or by phone: 770-889-6423.