MDJ Time Capsule: The Atherton's Drug Store Explosion
by Damon Poirier
October 31, 2013 10:00 AM | 7570 views | 0 0 comments | 40 40 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Fifty years ago, Thursday, Oct. 31, 1963, the City of Marietta suffered one of its greatest tragedies – a gas explosion that ripped through the front portion of the Atherton Drug Store on the Marietta Square, killing seven people and injuring over 20 others. At the time of the explosion, Halloween festivities were in full swing with a Y.M.C.A-sponsored parade and a window painting contest on the Square.

A full story about the anniversary of the 1963 tragedy, written by Rachel Gray, can be viewed here. The column below looks at the day by day coverage of events relating to the tragedy.

Sunday, Nov. 3, 1963

Two men – Charles E. Scott, 78, and J.B. Lamer, 22, - remained in critical condition in Kennestone Hospital.

Marietta Mayor Sam Welsch ordered the flags in the park, City Hall and the Marietta Post Office be flown at half-mast throughout the weekend. A drive-in on the Four Lane (U.S. Hwy. 41) also lowered its flag.

Investigators continued searching for the cause of the blast. Capt. Bartow Adair, head of the Fire Prevention Bureau and Fire Inspector, was quoted as saying that it was a low order explosion, which pushes rather than shatters, and could have occurred from many substances – including natural gas. Adair also said some witnesses had testified that they had smelled gas in and around the building beforehand.

The Marietta Fire Department was also reported looking for the person who answered the phone at the drug store immediately after the blast. Three soda fountain girls were said to have heard the phone ring in the pay booth at the end of the counter just before the explosion.

Gene Nesbitt, the merchandise manager at Atherton’s, had placed the call and said someone answered saying, “We’ve just had an explosion.” Adair said whoever stepped into the booth to answer the phone was in the area of the worst destruction and that Nesbitt’s call had saved their life.

Marietta mayor-elect Howard Atherton Jr. was quoted as saying a new drug store would be built on the explosion site. Atherton said plans called for a one-story brick structure with more floor space than before and office space on a mezzanine. Construction of the new store would begin once the insurance companies could determine the amount of damage to the store and the structure was torn down.

Monday, Nov. 4, 1963

Investigators continued to question witnesses about the explosion. Adair was quoted as saying that nothing new had developed in the case and the cause of the blast was still unknown.

Scott and Lamer were still in critical condition at Kennestone Hospital, while policemen W.R. Raines, Wyndall Black and George Kelly, who were injured in the blast, were listed as in good condition. Capt. H.P. Craft also entered the hospital with a back ailment caused by rescue operations during the disaster.

Sightseers from all over Georgia came by to see the shell of the ruined store. Police said at one time that cars were lined up from the light at the railroad crossing on Powder Springs Street all the way across the Marietta Square.

Special prayers for the dead and injured were offered in all of Marietta’s churches. At St. James Episcopal Church, it was noted that more than 60 people took Holy Communion on Sunday night compared to the usual 25 in attendance.

Tuesday, Nov. 5, 1963

Investigators were drawing closer to the end of their inquiries and said that the possible cause of the blast was natural gas. Tuesday’s operations consisted of boring holes in the sidewalk next to the store, testing cracks in the basement and searching the front of the building for evidence of gas leaks.

Witnesses were still being questioned and the Marietta Fire Department had not yet discovered who answered the phone that rang just before the explosion.

Scott and Lamer remained in critical condition at Kennestone Hospital. Raines, Black and Kelly along with teenager Jimmy Smith were listed as in good condition. The three policemen were talking with Smith at the front of the store at the time of the blast. Another injured man, Fred Grant was transferred to Georgia Baptist Hospital in Atlanta.

Howard Atherton Jr. was quoted as saying that the business office of the drug store would be set up in the old Western Union office on Powder Springs Street next to the First National Bank.

Approximately 3,000 long distance calls were handled by Southern Bell Telephone Company during the “peak” hours of the tragedy. The phone company also took 1,400 calls for information and 600 “assistance” calls. District Manager J.E. Breedlove said the total 3,000 calls did not include local calls, which were not counted due to the automated system. But, Breedlove said it was triple the number of calls they ordinarily carried between 6:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.

Normally, 15-20 women manned the switchboards during those hours, but that night 60 operators were on duty. Breedlove said that he didn’t have to call a single person in because they all heard about the blast and started streaming into the office on their own.

Wednesday, Nov. 6, 1963

A 30-foot length of gas line along the front of the store had been exposed and an inch-by-inch examination of the line was being made. Marietta Fire Chief Howard Schaffer said they uncovered several lateral holes running from the line to the basement wall of the building, made by old roots, which could have made it possible for gas to penetrate a point near the building.

Scott and Lamer continued to remain in critical condition at Kennestone.

Thursday, Nov. 7, 1963

Scott and Lamer showed slight improvement and all of the other injured were listed in good condition, according to a hospital spokesman.

High winds caused concern at the blast site because the wide open front allowed the wind to sweep inward and put pressure on the weakened walls. Despite the hazard, investigators spooned out particles of roots believed to have caused the leakage in the gas pipe. Also found was what resembled a large railroad tie with an old, square, rusted iron nail in it. Samples of wood and dirt were taken for laboratory testing.

Friday, Nov. 8, 1963

Scott and Lamer continued to remain in critical condition at the hospital.

Gas mains around the drug store were sealed off to further test the cause of the explosion. Valves were installed and gas pressure was taken off the lines around the wrecked building. Temporary service lines were run to the buildings around the drug store location.

Schaffer said excavation was discontinued because the vibrations caused by the air hammers used to tear up the sidewalks threatened to collapse the weakened store walls. Further excavation would continue after merchandise and fixtures were taken from the building and a wrecking crew demolished the walls.

Dr. Howard Jones, head of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation team, sent an official letter of commendation to Mayor Welsch praising Schaffer and his staff, the city police, City Engineer C.C. Davis and his staff, the Marietta Civil Defense workers, the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office, Dr. Webster A. Sherrer – the state medical examiner for Cobb County, and Atlanta Gas Light Company for their help in the investigation.

Sunday, Nov. 10, 1963

Schaffer confirmed discovery of a gas leak in the main running in front of the ruins of the drug store. In a preliminary report to the City Council, he said the leak was caused by “corrosive action” which permitted gas to escape at a rate of 10 cubic feet every 79 seconds. Schaffer also said that the investigation had revealed “spots as big as half-dollars, quarters and dimes showing corrosive action” in addition to the point of the leak.

Scott remained in critical condition at Kennestone. Lamer, however, was downgraded to fair condition. Smith was scheduled to have his leg amputated by surgeons.

Monday, Nov. 11, 1963

Scott remained in critical condition for the 12th day, while Lamer was listed in satisfactory condition.

Tuesday, Nov. 12, 1963

Tentative plans called for the wrecking operation of the shell of the drug store. Davis said that the building would probably be dismantled instead of pulled down, which would take about three weeks.

Scott, who had been critical for two weeks, improved enough for the hospital to list him as in fair condition.

Wednesday, Nov. 13, 1963

A contract with the Continental Wrecking Corporation of Atlanta was signed to dismantle the drug store at a cost of about $6,000. R.H. Isley, superintendent of the wrecking company crew, said it would take three to four weeks to complete.

G.B. Lee, the office supervisor of the Marietta branch of the Atlanta Gas Light Company, said the company had begun its annual check of pipes in Marietta and the Cobb County area. The survey was expected to take two to three weeks to complete.

Scott slipped back onto the critical list, but Lamer, Smith, Raines and Black were all listed in good condition at the hospital.

Thursday, Nov. 14, 1963

Raines was released from the hospital, while Scott remained in critical condition after only one day off the list since the explosion.

The “mystery phone call answerer” still had not been found and the investigation now indicated that both the phones of the prescription side and in the pay booth had rung and were answered.

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