Hapeville, GA Broken Gas Main Explodes, May 1968


Hapeville, Ga. (UPI) -- A broken gas main exploded outside a nursery full of infants and children Wednesday, sending sheets of flame through the building and killing at least nine persons.
Police earlier had reported that 10 persons were killed in the blast and fire at the white frame building but medical examiner TOM DILLON said Wednesday night that nine persons -- seven children and two adults -- were dead in the holocaust. Police later revised their toll to nine.
DILLON, medical examiner for Fulton County, said many of the victims were so badly burned that identification was difficult.
Nine persons also were injured in the blast, three seriously.
"It just went poof," a policeman reported, "just like that, it was gone."
"It's horrible, it's horrible," sobbed an officer scouring the rubble for further victims.
Lt. J. S. CLAY of the Hapeville police department, in charge of the search operations, said 37 children and four adults were in the Hapeville Day Nursery when a tractor ruptured a gas main a foot from the front wall of the house.
He said he counted 10 bodies. However, South Fulton hospital reported that several hours after the explosion it had received only nine bodies.
CLAY said he did not know where the 10th body may have been taken.
The esplosion blew in the front part of the house and flames engulfed the remains. CLAY said the children had just finished lunch. "Once they feed them lunch they move them to the rear of the house and put most of them in cribs for their naps," he said. "It was really lucky they did."
The two surviving adults "just started picking children up off the floor and throwing them out the back door," CLAY said. Others rushed through the billowing smoke and flames to help.
The survivors were taken into a house behind the shattered nursery. Parents rushed to the scene, drenched by a heavy rain and were taken to the house in hopes of finding their children unharmed.
"Oh my God, oh my God," sobbed a woman when she was told her child was not among the survivors in the house. Another woman toppled in a faint, and two bystanders caught her.
Other women fainted from either shock or relief. Volunteers administered smelling salts. Those who found their children safe rushed from the house, clutching the youngsters in their arms and refusing to talk to reporters.
Many wept uncontrollably -- both before and after they visited the house of survivors. A few hours after the explosion, all the unharmed children had been reunited with their parents. But firemen, the soot on their faces streaked with tears, continued to poke through the rubble with long hooks.
Those parents who did not find their children at the house rushed to South Fulton hospital, where most of the dead and injured were taken. Most of the dead, hospital officials said, could not be immediately identified.
One injured child was taken to Grady hospital. Most of the injuries, hospital officials said were minor -- "fractures and burns."
WILLIAM STRICKLAND said he was grading dirt in the front yard of the nursery so workmen could build another room on it. He said the tractor was about a foot from the front of the white frame building when "I hit the gas main and it just went up. It was terrible."
Only the back wall, and part of another wall of the house, were left standing. The houses next door, and the swings and slides behind the nursery, showed no sign of the explosion.
Despite the heavy rain that followed the explosion, several hundred persons crowded around the ropes cordoning off the area. They soon drited onto front porches and back to their cars.
Capt. J. W. STUBBS of the east point police department said "It just went poof -- just like that it was gone. When we got here flames were shooting out the top of the building."
Hapeville is an Atlanta suburb.
One Hapeville policeman said "when we got here the place was in flames and the fire department was just putting hoses to it, throwing the water on. It was englufed in flames. From the front to the middle there was flames and the rest of it was nothing but dense smoke. There was no way of getting in."
"Several men went into the back room and one located a youngster, just a little youngster, maybe only a year old ..." the officer began sobbing and could not continue.
Police said the nursery manager, MRS. J. M. GARDNER, 50, of Hapeville, returned to the building to help evacuate children and died in the flames.
Also killed was MILDRED REEVES, about 30, of Atlanta, another nursery employe.
Their efforts, along with those of other employes who returned to the building several times, kept the death toll from going higher.
Five year old DEBORAH FOGG of Hapeville and BELINDA BROOKS, 2, suffered fractured skulls. LORA LEE WHEELER, 3, was reported in poor condition at Grady Hospital in Atlanta, where she was admitted with a head injury and burns.
MRS. W. D. POPE, SR., owner of the nursery but not at the scene when the blast occurred, was treated for shock.
After receiving medication, she sat in a wheelchair in the emergency room and was comforted by a minister.
"I just wish it could have been me. I just with it could have been me," MRS. POPE sobbed over and over.

Kingsport News Tennessee 1968-05-30