February 28, 2008


Damned to Eternity: The Story of the Man Who They Said Caused the Flood. By Adam Pitluk. Da Capo. $24.95.

      It’s hard to pick a “worst disaster” of 1993, but there are plenty of candidates. That was the year the World Trade Center was bombed by terrorists – a fatal attack that proved to be a preliminary to the destruction of the Twin Towers eight years later. It was also the year of the Blizzard of 1993: a gigantic March storm, stretching at one point from Canada to Central America, that spawned 10 tornadoes, produced nearly unbelievable amounts of snow in the South (more than two feet in Chattanooga and 17 inches in Birmingham, Alabama – which normally gets one inch in a year), caused well over $6 billion in damage, and killed at least 26 people in Florida alone.

      In the Midwest, though, many people’s pick for the worst disaster of the year was an event that killed no one and did not cause a single injury. It was a flood in and around West Quincy, Missouri. It was a flood that occurred after a levee gave way and that submerged thousands of acres of farmland, causing perhaps twice the monetary damages of the Blizzard of 1993. And it was, perhaps, a flood that need not have happened. It may – may – have been caused by the malfeasance of Inmate #1001364 at the Jefferson City Correctional Center. Damned to Eternity is the story of that inmate, James Scott, and of how he came to be imprisoned for life under a 1979 Missouri Law.

      Actually, Damned to Eternity is two intertwined stories: one about Scott, the flood and the town that may – may – have been out to find someone to blame, and one about the legal system whose workings put Scott in prison, with no chance of parole until the year 2023. Each story is interesting in its own way, and both have been carefully researched by Adam Pitluk, a journalist who lived in the area affected by the flood during much of the 1990s. Pitluk’s attempt at journalistic balance is impressive – he says he wants the reader to make up his or her own mind about what happened – but the preponderance of the reporting does make it seem that Scott, although certainly no innocent in his earlier life, was made a scapegoat in this particular case. The even-handedness of the book can actually be a bit wearing, as can Pitluk’s somewhat contradictory docudrama approach of presenting the minutiae of thoughts and actions that he cannot possibly know. For example, one significant event that marked Scott as a bad apple in town was a 1982 prank that got out of hand, in which he and two other boys set fire to Webster Elementary School. Pitluk paints the scene vividly: “They watched their fire for a few seconds as it began to eat up more fabric and spread toward the ceiling. …[G]lowing embers dashed from the velvet edges [of the curtain] and flew back at them. …A second flame flared up in the middle of the cloth.” This is fine novelistic writing – one instance among many – but it is hard to see, even with Pitluk’s mining of primary sources, how he could get this level of detail objectively right.

      This is not a mere quibble, since so much of this story turns on exactly who said what to whom, exactly when, and who did exactly what as a result. When Scott was 18, Pitluk writes, he “momentarily longed for his childhood” at Halloween. Then he smoked, “feeling the nicotine pierce the back of his tongue as he drew the hot smoke into his frosty lungs.” These elements of Scott’s story in the first half of the book set up the 1993 storm and the central question that would later be raised at Scott’s two trials (in 1994 and 1998): did Scott make sure that a dam would fail after more than a week of rain, or didn’t he? Why would he do such a thing? “Jimmy, [witness Joe Flachs] said, intentionally broke the levee to strand his wife in Missouri so he could party in Illinois without her. [Officer Dennis] Boden’s jaw literally dropped. His chin tilted to the floor and his eyes fixed on the teen. ‘Are you kidding me?’ he asked in sheer disbelief. …[T]his was the most ridiculous motive in the history of detective work.”

      It does indeed seem petty to the point of ridiculousness, but the fact is that this is the basis on which Scott was eventually convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the Class A felony of Intentionally Causing a Catastrophe – the only man ever convicted under that Missouri law (his penalty would have been a maximum of seven years if he had been found guilty under an analogous statute across the river in Illinois). The breaking of the levee, which ruined a great deal of cropland, was certainly a hard economic blow for the people in the region. But not even all of them found the jury’s verdict believable: one man, Pitluk says, “read with sheer amazement” how the jurors “ignored all signs of stress along the levee and placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Webster Elementary School fire starter.” Yet other people, as Pitluk makes equally clear, believed Scott caused the catastrophe and fully deserved his lifetime punishment.

      Will readers outside the areas affected by this flood care about all this? Maybe, but maybe not: the book deals with a local law and a regional occurrence that was arguably not even the worst weather event of 15 years ago. Because Pitluk tries to be even-handed, there is no crusading miscarriage-of-justice angle here. And Scott himself, innocent or guilty, is not a very deep, much less appealing, central character. Pitluk has written a thorough book that will surely be of interest to people who endured the huge trauma of the 1993 flood – at least those who want to re-live it. But for others, unless they have an interest in some of the unusual aspects of state law, Damned to Eternity is likely to come across as a story that, while interesting enough, does not deal with events as monumentally significant as Pitluk considers them to be.

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