Villa Rica has proclaimed Tuesday, December 5, 2017, the 60th Anniversary of the downtown Villa Rica gas explosion, as the Explosion Day of Remembrance in memory of the victims and in honor of all who provided aid and support.
Villa Rica Mayor Jeff Reese encourages everyone to join him at the dedication of the Remembrance Garden on Tuesday, December 5 at 11:00am. The garden is located at the very back of Hillcrest Cemetery next to the mausoleum.
The following information about the explosion is provided by local historian Lisa Land Cooper, from a chapter from her book "Every Now and Then: The Amazing Tales of Douglas County, Volume I"
A historical marker situated at 130 Montgomery Street in downtown Villa Rica 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.”
Yes, the fateful day was Thursday, December 5, 1957. People were going about their normal business on a weekday. They were going to the store, keeping appointments, seeing to some early Christmas shopping, and 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 twelve people and injured at least twenty others.
In an instant the lives of so many changed.
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.
In a newspaper article regarding the 50th anniversary of the explosion in 1997, Ethyleen Tyson remembered 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.
Reporters from as far away as Atlanta swarmed the scene. Eyewitnesses told them that right after the explosion 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.
For several folks it was just a matter of mere coincidence they weren’t inside the pharmacy. Longtime pharmacists, James Harrison had been out making house calls and had just returned to town at 11 a.m. He had opened the door to Berry’s Pharmacy but remembered it was voting day, and decided to go vote. Just as he reached the polling place, the explosion occurred.
Villa Rica lost several citizens that tragic day ranging from thirteen to sixty years of age including:
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, Douglas County historian and 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. The head of the National Guard in Douglasville at the time was on the scene thirty 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 Guard troops provided security to prevent looters from stealing from the damaged stores, including a jewelry store whose merchandise was scattered all over the street. Many years later, people were bringing back jewelry, because they felt guilty about taking it.
The explosion remains one of the most catastrophic events in area history in terms of injury and loss of life, and for that reason it is so very important that on this 60th anniversary of the tragedy an event such as a “Day of Remembrance” is most appropriate to remember those who perished, those who survived, and the many first responders who rushed to the scene.