On Oct. 31, 1963, 3,000 to 5,000 residents traveled from around Cobb County to the city-sponsored festival, which included merchants soaping and painting store fronts before area kids dressed in costumes and wigs zoomed past the local stores on bicycles.
Atherton’s Drug Store, on the corner of Whitlock Avenue and Church Street, bustled with customers on the festive evening when an explosion from the basement blew through the building, killing seven people and injuring dozens.
The dead included Joe Ben Carter, 34, and his son, Terry, 7, who had stepped in to buy a devil mask; Irma Fowler, the wife of a local pediatrician who was getting the late edition of the Atlanta Journal; S. A. White, 63, a wealthy oilman and leader in his Baptist church, who came to the corner store every night to buy a cigar; and Otelia Scott, an employee at Atherton’s, as well as Marie Butler and Betty Carlile.
On the scene of the tragedy 50 years ago, fumes leaking from a gas main that ran under the sidewalk outside of Atherton’s seeped into a small basement, more of a cellar or large crawl space, where the furnace was stored.
A spark from the furnace or the soda fountain air compressors ignited the blast that pounded through the bottom floor, causing large chunks of concrete to shoot up, then fall back down, throwing 11 customers out of the store into the 8-foot -deep hole.
Many Marietta residents from 1963 are alive to retell the haunting stories from the night of the Atherton’s explosion.
“There are a lot of old Mariettans here,” said Rupert Raines, a former Marietta policeman injured in the blast.
He predicts the memories cannot last. “Time will wipe all that out,” Raines said.
Yet, those who were not alive or are too young to have first-hand accounts, have heard the Halloween tale for years and pass on the stories about their family’s heroes — emergency workers who rescued victims and doctors who performed miracles.
The evening patrol
Raines, now 76, had swapped assignments with another officer to patrol the parade during the evening shift from 3 to 11 p.m.
“I was supposed to be on the desk that night,” Raines said.
Raines, along with fellow officers George Kelley and Wendall Black, stopped at Atherton’s for a hamburger and a soft drink from the soda fountain.
“We had just walked out the door, and I waved to a car of passing teenagers who had honked,” said Raines. “I had a sensation of being upside down. That is the last thing I remember.”
Raines said no one smelled the natural gas, and once lit, “there was no way for it to go but up.”
When the gas reached the main floor, it blasted through large glass windows that wrapped around the corner of the building.
Raines, Kelley and Black had stopped to talk to a high school student, Jimmy Smith, when the blast blew them into the street. The explosion caused Smith to lose a leg and Black fractured his pelvis.
“It seemed like a big puff of wind and that was it,” Kelley said, who joined the police force the same year as Raines in 1959.
Kelley said he remembers cuts all over his body like knife wounds, and his uniform had been torn almost completely from his body.
Kelley, now 81, had a knee replaced and plate placed on his spine, but returned to work and retired from the Marietta Police Department 25 years later as a lieutenant in the detective division.
Raines said the keys hanging from a ring on his gun belt were snapped in half, and candy bars were embedded in the rafters.
Raines had many operations on his right knee, which was eventually replaced and still cannot bend past 90 degrees.
“It slowed me down a lot,” Raines said, but he went back to work for the Marietta Police Department until retiring as an assistant chief.
Raines’ family moved to Marietta when he was a young child so his parents could work for the Bell Bomber factory. At 22, Raines joined the police force, which was run by his future father-in-law, Chief Ernest Sanders.
“Back then, you knew most of the people in Marietta,” Raines said.
The rescue effort
When the first alarm sounded at the Marietta Fire Department station closest to downtown, John Garrett, now 82, did not respond from his post near the old Marietta High School on Polk Street.
But when firefighters arrived at the scene, they quickly called Garrett to bring the ladder truck down to the Square, even though the explosion had not caused a fire, Garrett said.
Garrett, who was with the Marietta Fire Department for 37 years, was the operator of the truck that night.
The pit where victims were trapped by giant debris had exposed electrical wiring mixed with broken water lines, and the building was not secure with the bowed structure likely to cave in.
“We didn’t think about that,” Garrett said.
Garrett said he does not remember chaos or confusion at the scene, but men focused on the rescue operation, which required working in a tight space.
Although safety was always a concern, Garrett said, his “uniform” was blue jeans and a button-down shirt with a wide-brimmed hard hat. That was the gear for whatever emergency sounded the alarm.
“You either love it or you don’t stay,” Garrett said about being a firefighter.
Fifty years ago, the Marietta Civil Defense force, dressed in head-to-toe white jumpsuits and hard hats, dove into the pit, as their chief, Romeo Hudgins, ordered steel beams to be welded together to brace the sides of the brick building.
Many accounts from eyewitness of that Halloween night said Hudgins risked his life several times to rescue victims by removing piles of rubble, dug out largely by hand with the help of a wrecker truck designed to move vehicles.
Jim Lamer, now 72 and living in Palm Coast, Fla., was one survivor pulled from the bombed-out basement and admitted to Kennestone Hospital in critical condition.
Lamer said he was running into Atherton to buy cigarettes before driving to Atlanta. He was standing by the cash register when the building blew. Lamer said he heard later that the cash register was found on the top of a nearby bank building.
“In my time, it was the most horrible thing that happened,” Lamer said.
Lamer said he does not remember the blast and woke up in the hospital after a month of being in a coma.
“I didn’t know why I was there,” Lamer said.
When Lamer was released from the hospital, he was given back his watch, which had been smashed to pieces. The face of the watch is permanently stuck at 6:23 p.m., the time of the explosion.
Lamer said, the Square in 1963 was the type of place where a customer would pop in to to a store and the owner would know your name and even if your mother was looking for you.
“Atherton’s was a very popular place with the kids,” Lamer said.
Just an hour before the explosion, Lamar had purchased an engagement ring downtown at Fletcher’s Jewelry Store, which had its windows blown out during the explosion.
Lamer never found the ring, but he did marry his sweetheart, Dana Dale. Luckily, he had the ring insured moments before being buried by the explosion.
Newspaper gives account
According to stories told over the last 50 years, most of the staff of Kennestone Hospital were at a Halloween party before doctors and nurses dashed in, still wearing their costumes, to treat the injured.
Although the hospital did not have a triage center, there was a plan in place in case of a disaster, according to front page reports in the Marietta Daily Journal the next day.
The article, “Hospital Meets Tragedy With Calm Compassion,” said only immediate family was allowed inside the hospital, so a dazed crowd formed outside, filled with parents looking for their children, concerned residents wanting to donate blood and fainting women who were revived by smelling salts as news about the dead reached the crowd.
“It was chaos,” said Raines.
Word about the explosion traveled fast through the city and state.
According to the Marietta Daily Journal on Nov. 6, 1963, 1,000 long distance calls, 1,400 calls to operators for information and 600 calls for “assistance” were handled between 6:30 and 10:30 p.m. that Halloween night by the Southern Bell Telephone Co., triple the normal amount.
For days and weeks, from a little brick building on Anderson Street, off the south side of the Square, poured out news detailing who died in Atherton’s and the cause of the explosion.
The mayor-elect, Howard Atherton Jr., who had recently won a special election, owned and operated the drug store with his father. Atherton Jr. had just finished judging a costume contest for children across the Square at the courthouse, and was about to return to the store.
Bill Kinney, now 89, who retired in February from the Marietta Daily Journal, was in Smyrna the night of the blast, but rushed back to the Square.
Although the memories of that horrific night have faded over time, Kinney said he is reminded any time he passes that corner.
“They were some of the most prominent people in Marietta that got blown up,” Kinney said. “They were the backbone of the community.”
A Halloween festival of that size was never held again on the Square after 1963.
“The Square was never the same again,” Raines said.
Although Raines said he thinks about the tragedy every year, he does not have any eerie feelings while out walking downtown and even stops to eat at the Marietta Pizza Co., where Atherton’s once stood.
After the explosion, the shell of the two-story building was torn down less than two weeks later.
The impact of the explosion for Kelley is more lasting.
“This is something that happens to me every year. I relive it about every Halloween,” Kelley said.
For a day by day look at news coverage following the gas explosion at Atherton’s Drug Store, check out Damon Poirier's Time Capsule column here.