It was called the worst tragedy to ever hit the city of Marietta: on Halloween night in 1963, a massive explosion shook the city’s Square just as thousands were arriving to take part in the holiday festivities.
Many of those in attendance were parents and children who had gathered near Atherton’s Drug Store, according to the Atlanta Journal’s report from 53 years ago. As many as 5,000 people were in Marietta Square when something went horribly wrong just before 6:30 p.m.
All of downtown Marietta was suddenly shaken when the explosion went through Atherton’s and out into the street. The windows were blown out of the drug store and the building across the street, the Atlanta Journal also reported, and it shot debris into the air – including a child’s shoe that was found on top of a two-story building nearby. Seven people were killed and 23 more were injured.
“I don’t know exactly what to say,” Marietta mayor Sam Welch told a reporter in the days following the explosion. “It is the most horrible tragedy ever to happen in Marietta.”
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It was learned that the explosion was caused by a leaking gas main under the sidewalk in front of Atherton’s, according to the Marietta Daily Journal. After that gas made its way into the basement of the building, the report added, either the furnace or the air compressors from the soda fountains ignited the blast.
The explosion left an eight-foot hole in the ground outside Atherton’s, and several people were thrown out of the drug store and into the hole, the report added. The blast occurred at the corner of Whitlock Avenue and Church Street on the southwestern side of the Square, where the Marietta Pizza Co. is located today.
The tragedy was devastating for the city, and it was a night many wouldn’t forget for the rest of their lives – including Roy Pritchard, who was a 20-year-old rookie firefighter in 1963. It was his job to pull the dead from the drug store’s basement, he told the Associated Press.
“If every day was like that, I couldn’t have stayed on the job,” Pritchard told the AP. “I knew these people. I got goofy with my emotions. I was all tore up. I was spitting and puking. An older fireman patted me on my back and said, ‘Get tough, son, hang in there.'”
The report also said that as the injured were rushed to nearby Kennestone Hospital, doctors and nurses were at an orthopedic surgeon’s house for a Halloween party, and when they heard of the blast, they immediately went to work to treat the patients. Many of the doctors and patients were still in costume.
The two-story drug store building would be torn down and rebuilt two weeks after the explosion, according to the Marietta Daily Journal.
In the 20 years that followed, there was no Halloween festival in the Square, the AP also said. The city’s residents just couldn’t bring themselves to celebrate on the anniversary of such a horrible occasion. If you look at the city’s calendar, you’ll notice that there won’t be any events on the Square this Halloween, either – all festivities were held on Saturday night instead.
“The Square was never the same again,” Rupert Raines, a former Marietta policeman injured in the blast, told the Marietta Daily Journal.Follow @Sean_Breslin