Google+ Georgia On My Mind: The Villa Rica Explosion

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Villa Rica Explosion

Back in 2006, I posted at History Is Elementary information regarding a lesson I teach at the beginning of the year titled Historians Observe Their Surroundings. Basically I show various images in an attempt to get students to see that every piece of ground has a history.

At one point in the lesson we move as a group down to the playground….not for recess but to make some observations. From that post I wrote:

By this time I have several wiggle worms so we get up and walk down to the recess field. I gather everyone in a group and I tell them that historians never know what they are standing on unless they truly observe their surroundings. We identify together that we are standing on the recess field, and then I ask, “Is that all we’re standing on?”I tell students to follow me and we go to the edge of the playground.

We are standing on the edge of a hill. Down below us we see a flat overgrown area. Sticking out of the hill in various places we see all sorts of debris. Rocks, long pieces of rebar, broken signs, glass, wires, bricks, and assorted hunks of concrete litter the hillside.

We regroup, and I tell the class that the area where they play did not look like it did many years ago. I ask them to come up with some ideas about what happened. Some are silly, some are average, and some are pretty good guesses.

Finally, I tell them the story. Many loads of dirt were hauled in to build up their playground, but before the dirt was dumped the town brought in remnants of a section of town. You see the town where our school is located experienced an explosion, and some of the trash ended up as filler for our playground. Some of the kids nod their heads in agreement and state their grandmother or grandfather had told them about the explosion while other students are amazed.So….before we trudge back to the classroom I summarize and close with, “What did we learn today?” I get several responses.“Things aren’t always as they appear to be.”“You never know what you are looking at.”


“Every piece of ground has a history if you’ll just look at it and listen.”

“Our recess field is a dump.”

Yep, there’s always a true blue smartie in every group.

While working on some things for my church history the other day I came across a 1997 article from the Douglas County Sentinel dated December 5th.

The article states:

It was the worst tragedy to ever hit this small west Georgia town, and for people who recall that fateful day, the memories are just as vivid as ever.

Thursday, December 5, 1957, was a day just like any other in downtown Villa Rica. People were out casting their ballots for municipal elections as they had done in years past. Others were catching up on their Christmas shopping.

And then, suddenly, their lives were changed forever.

Shortly after 11 a.m., a natural gas explosion ripped through the downtown area, killing 12 people and injuring at least 20 others.

According to newspaper accounts of the time, several eye witnesses described the blast as a loud “whoomp,”, that was more like a clap than a bang.

Others said that the town suddenly looked as if it had been hit by an atom bomb.

“I was in kindergarten at the time in Mrs. Nan Cole’s house when we heard the loud explosion,” said Suzanne Watson. “We could see the cloud from the explosion, and Mrs. Cole told us something was burning, to allay our fears. I found out what really happened when I got home from kindergarten.”

Ethyleen Tyson recalled similar memories.

“I was at home about two miles away from town when we heard this loud boom,” Tyson recounted. “We thought it sounded like a bad thunderstorm…the noise vibrated the whole house and shook the windows.”

Tyson said that an announcer came on WSB-Radio shortly after the noise and reported that a bad explosion had occurred in Villa Rica. Authorities asked that people stay away from downtown since only emergency vehicles were being allowed into the area and a search was under way for bodies.

…Eyewitnesses who were downtown when the blast occurred told reporters who swarmed the area from as far away as Atlanta, that the air was filled with clothing, papers, wood, bricks, and other falling debris.

Buildings several hundred yards away were damaged. Four cars were completely smashed. Fortunately, rescuers found them to be empty.

Newspaper accounts from the day reported that Berry’s Pharmacy was believed to have been ground zero for the blast. For several days prior to the explosion, employees at several downtown buildings had complained of smelling gas, especially at the drugstore.

Ralph Fuller is one of the few who can claim he was inside the drugstore that morning and lived to tell the tale.

“I was in the drugstore and I was sitting with a girl in the back having something to eat,” the Villa Rica barber remembered. “We were sitting by the jukebox, and I thought the jukebox had blown up.”

“I thought I would smother once I realized what had happened, what with all the debris on top of me,” he continued.

Fuller received severe burns in the blast and was hospitalized. Although Fuller said that does not remember how long he had to stay in the hospital, he did remember the reaction of family members who visited him there.

“My own sister didn’t recognize me from the burns I had,” said Fuller.

According to newspaper accounts of the time, rescue workers and fire departments from all over the local area and as far away as Atlanta responded to the blast.

The Civil Defense from Cedartown was called in to help maintain order, as was the State Militia. Prisoners from the county jail were even brought in to help.

Volunteers, however, did much of the work of sifting through the rubble until rescuers arrived. Longtime pharmacist James Harrison, the father of Suzanne Watson, was one of them.

Harrison was downtown when the blast occurred. He had been out making house calls with a doctor friend, and had returned to town just before 11 a.m. His friend had dropped him off in front of Berry’s Pharmacy, and Harrison had started inside to have a soft drink and relax.
“As I opened the door and began to walk inside, I remembered that it was Election Day, so I decided to go vote….Just as I reached it, the explosion took place.”

Harrison said that telephoned his wife and daughter to let them know that he was OK, and then went immediately back to the scene to help.

He recalled one woman in particular who was buried under the debris of a building near the corner of Montgomery and Candler.

“There were prisoners drilling the best they could through the concrete and we could hear her crying, “Help me! Help me, I’m burning up!”

Johnny Blair, brother of Ethyleen Tyson, was 29-years-old at the time and on duty with the Carrollton Fire Department when news of the explosion reached the station. Blair went up to Villa Rica to help out with the rescue.

“Oh Lord, it was a terrible mess,” said Blair. “We worked all told about three days and nights doing what we could.”

“We helped move debris as well as helping with the traffic,” Blair continued. “Another thing I’ll say is that you say what you want about convicts, but you’ve got to give it to the convicts who worked the explosion that day. They were lined up in a long row and were passing the debris by hand to try to get to the people who were buried.”

Those who survived the blast recall that nearly everybody who lived in Villa Rica knew someone who was killed in the blast.

“It’s only the Lord’s mercy there weren’t more killed or hurt,” Tyson said.

The following are the persons who perished in the December 5, 1957 natural gas blast in downtown Villa Rica:

Mrs. Ann Pope Smith, age 23
Mrs. Margaret Berry
Bobby Roberts, age 13
Miss Carolyn Davis, age 22
Oscar Hixon, age 34
O.T. Dyer, age 60
Johnny Dyer, age 30
Rob Broom, age 54
Dr. Jack Burnham, a dentist
Kenneth Hendrix
Carl Vinter
Rozella Johnson


The newspaper article goes on to state the above names was supplied through the kindness and hardwork of Mrs. Ethyleen Tyson.

The marker seen pictured with this post and on the web here is located in Villa Rica, Georgia in front of Berry’s Pharmacy on U.S. Route 78 at the intersection with South Chandler Street in downtown Villa Rica.

The marker states:

Around 11:00 a.m. on December 5, 1957, a natural gas leak under Berry’s Pharmacy caused an explosion that destroyed four buildings and damaged several others in Villa Rica’s downtown. The explosion killed twelve and injured twenty. The tragedy highlighted the need for both an organized local emergency response unit and the use of odor in the natural gas supply.

The civil defense unit that resulted became a model for west Georgia. Ensuing litigation placed a considerable financial burden on the city, suppressing economic development for years. In terms of injury and loss of life, the explosion remains the most catastrophic event in Carroll County history…


Update: Someone at the Topix page for Villa Rica….found here...posted a link to old news reel footage concerning the explosion. The video is presented below:


2 comments:

East Point Historical Society Curator said...

Interesting post, I have never heard of this incident, love the addition of the Newsreel because I was searching for photos after reading it and none were to be found.

EHT said...

Nice to hear from someone in East Point. Sorry to be so long responding to your comment, but a hospital stay has gotten me quite behind in my blogging.

I was actually surprised to find the newsreel and did so quite by accident.

A local educator on my side of town is writing a book about the explosion. I hope to post more about it later.

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