Our History: The Villa Rica Explosion
Twelve people perished in the Dec. 5, 1957 natural gas blast in downtown Villa Rica.
When I was a teacher at Villa Rica Elementary I always wanted to begin the school year by showing my fourth and fifth graders that history is everywhere around them if they would take the time to examine, to wonder, and to question what they see.
A pile of rocks could be just that, but if you know a little history you might guess the pile of rocks might be a burial spot, if you just happen to know Native Americans in my area were doing that hundreds of years ago. If I knew a little history I might realize a pile of rocks could be part of a much larger design that could be seen from the air like Georgia’s Rock Eagle.
Part of my lessons during that first week of school always involved a walk down to the recess field where I would gather everyone in a group and impress upon students that historians never know what they are standing on unless they truly observe their surroundings.
I would have students verify we were standing on the recess field before asking, "Is that all we are standing on?"
Then I would remind them that sometimes you have to change your viewpoint. I would take students to the edge of the playground and down some steps towards an area that had been set up as our outdoor classroom for nature walks and science experiments. From this vantage point it was very easy to see the playground wasn't what it seemed.
From the outdoor classroom the recess field was hidden at the top of a very large hill. Sticking out of the side of the hill in various places were all sorts of debris. Rocks, long pieces of rebar, broken signs, glass, wires, bricks, and assorted hunks of concrete littered the hillside.
I would point out the debris and ask students to come up with ideas about what happened.
Finally, I would tell them the story...Many loads of dirt were hauled in to build up the playground at Villa Rica Elementary, but before the dirt was dumped the town of Villa Rica brought in remnants of a section of town. Much of the debris came from the Villa Rica Explosion. Usually, I would have a student or two who would nod their heads and confirm they had heard about the tragedy from their grandparents or parents.
Generally, most students had not heard about it, and were amazed.
The fateful day was Thursday, December 5, 1957. People were going about their normal business on a weekday...going to the store, keeping appointments, seeing to some early Christmas shopping. Some folks were simply out to cast their ballot in municipal elections going on at the time, but shortly after 11 a.m., a natural gas explosion took the lives of 12 people and injured at least 20 others...changing the lives of so many in an instant.
In 1997, the 40th anniversary of the explosion, the Douglas Sentinel published an article recounting that fateful day. Many folks remembered the sound of the explosion...“a loud whoomp, that was more like a clap than a bang...and others said that the town suddenly looked as if it had been hit by an atom bomb.”
“Ethyleen 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 he 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.
James Harrison, [a longtime pharmacist] 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 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."
The following persons 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
In 2010, author Elaine Bailey published a book titled “Explosion in Villa Rica” in an effort to make sure the history regarding the tragedy would not be forgotten.
Mrs. Bailey recounts in her book how members of Douglasville's National Guard were among the first rescuers on the scene. In an interview with the “Times Georgian” Mrs. Bailey recalls, "One of my most interesting interviews was with an 85-year-old man, who was head of the National Guard in Douglasville at the time. He was on the scene 30 minutes after the explosion and stayed for three days. After the story hit the news, National Guardsmen put on their uniforms and took off for Villa Rica."
Bailey further advised the guardsmen provided security to prevent looters from stealing from the damaged stores, including a jewelry store whose merchandise was scattered al over the street. She said, "Many years later, people were bringing back jewelry, because they felt guilty about taking it."
While downtown Villa Rica is actually in Carroll County, the explosion remains one of the most catastrophic events in area history in terms of injury and loss of life.