Stanardsville has seen its share of natural disasters over the years, but it was an explosion 40 years ago today which rocked the town’s court square that is difficult to forget. There were 13 people injured that day.
On Oct. 24, 1979, a construction worker yanked a live gas line out with a backhoe as the courthouse was undergoing renovations. Thinking quickly, someone ran into the clerk’s building to tell everyone to get out. By a miracle, no one was killed when the building exploded minutes later.
The Greene County Historical Society is hosting a talk at the courthouse this Sunday, Oct. 27 at 4 p.m. and the public is invited to learn about that day.
The clerk building, to the west of courthouse, was destroyed in the blast. It was then a three-story building with the county administration on the top level and the school system’s central office in the basement. Additionally, the treasurer, commissioner of revenue and registrar were located within the structure. The old jail, to the east of the circa 1838 courthouse, housed the sheriff’s office and emergency dispatch. Many who were there that day have either retired and moved on or passed away.
The National Transportation and Safety Board noted in its report that no one consulted with the gas company prior to the construction and at that time Greene County didn’t have a “one-call” system, though surrounding localities did participate in one. It took about a half-hour to get the gas line shut down to town and another two hours to cap the line to the building itself because of the debris from the explosion, the report notes.
Here are a few recollections from those who were there, though many others will be shared during the presentation on Sunday.
Patti (McDaniel) Vogt
Patti McDaniel graduated from William Monroe High School in June 1979 and went straight to full-time work with the county administration office, then located on the top floor of the clerk’s office, though she’d been working part time for the county since she was 14. Vogt still works in the county administration office.
The building inspector had his desk right there in front of the window. Bernice Chapman was the secretary to the county administrator Julius Morris. She had a desk and I had a typing table and Morris’s office was above where the Clerk of Court Lelia Bickers’s office was.
The project manager came in and in a very stern voice, as I remember it, said ‘get out now there’s a gas leak.’ We did get our purses and exited the building.
Where Chameleon Silk Screening is now on Ford Avenue was The Burger House restaurant and we went up there and I was getting a cup of hot chocolate. I saw a fire truck go down the street. I was a kid and I’m loving the excitement, so I left the restaurant and started to walk toward the building, getting to where Domino’s is now when the clerk’s office exploded.
It’s the weirdest thing, and it’s strange to say, but it was like the building took a breath in, like it went in and then went boom. I think, sometimes, I could have been dead all of these years.
It was just surreal. And then the town got so crowded and there were people everywhere and you couldn’t get out. All of our cars were blocked so there was no way to leave.
I remember sitting in the back of an ambulance because it was cold and looked out through the crowd and saw my future husband walking through the crowd looking for me.
And then things get a bit blurry because all of this is happening around us. It was just confusion and people were everywhere. I don’t even really remember going home that night. I mean I know I did, but I don’t really remember it. I remember sitting there watching them trying to put the fire out and then the courthouse catching fire.
My mother worked in the schools and the first thing they heard was that the building blew up and that everyone had been killed. She was very frantic. Of course there were no cell phones and I didn’t think to go over there; I guess I was just in shock.
Nothing survived from our offices. I don’t remember why, but for whatever reason we had some board of supervisors minute books in our office and they were all destroyed.
When we did go back to work, our offices were at the end of Ford Avenue in the Farm Bureau building (which they’ve recently torn down). We moved around a lot before moving into the administration building.
I cannot believe it’s been 40 years. We used to have a little tradition, those employees who were there that day, which we’d go out to lunch that day and we did that for several years. And then, you know, we all moved on.
Ray Dingledine was the assistant superintendent of schools in 1979. Dingledine retired in 2008 after 38 years with the school system—three years as a teacher, four years as a principal before working in the central office beginning in 1977. In 1990, Dingledine became superintendent of schools until he retired.
It was a cold day, but not particularly special. I remember I was in the office in a meeting, with Hunter Birckhead, who just recently passed away. When they came down and said there was a gas leak, we were in the basement of the building and we all just went out. Nobody took their personal belongings. Nobody thought anything of it.
Hunter and I went out and sat in a county car that was right outside the front doors. We sat in the car and continued to talk—we were still meeting—we were just waiting to be allowed back in. We watched four men run into the building and then there was just an explosion. Our first thought was ‘oh my gosh those four guys just ran in there.’ And then all four of them came running back out. We originally thought they were going to go in there and check something and make sure everything was OK and then let us come back in.
Something made (the gas) combust. And then these flames were just shooting up because the gas was still flowing. We got out of the car then. And then our concern was not knowing how the natural gas would work, we knew all the schools had natural gas. People were asking could it back up, you know, and go back to the system. It wasn’t the case, but there was a concern.
We all knew everyone was OK but no one from the outside did. My wife was at home and a neighbor called her to say the building I was in blew up, and it’s before cell phones, and I didn’t even think to call to say I was OK. We didn’t know the news was going to go out everywhere.
Once we got over realizing what had happened, we realized we had no office space. We had nothing, everything was blown up. We lost all our records. I mean it was just totally destroyed.
We had to go to the Greene County Primary School, and they had a conference room. There were three of us and we used tape to section off the table for the three of us and that became our office.
The state had some of the records we lost, but we just had to reconstruct everything and then eventually, you know, obviously the county office space was built.
It was a scary day for the while but the thing I remember the most is, we knew we were all OK and I didn’t even think about the fact that everybody else would be worried about anybody working in the building because it was big news. When you’re in middle of it, you don’t realize how dangerous it was because none of us were injured.
I’m just I am grateful no one was seriously injured.
David Cox, who was expecting his first child within a month, was working at the dairy farm off Celt Road a few miles from town. He was a volunteer firefighter with Stanardsville Volunteer Fire Department, which at that time was located where Lawson’s is on Main Street. A notch on one of the war memorials in front of the clerk’s office is a reminder of that day.
The initial call came in as a gas leak. I was at the diary then. When the second tone went off for a gas explosion, I looked this way and it was a black mushroom cloud.
They pulled the old engine down here by the western side of the clerk’s office. All the windows were blown out of the building and surrounding buildings, too. I ran up to the fire truck and moved it up Ford Avenue toward Domino’s.
David Powell, who was a volunteer with Ruckersville Volunteer Fire company but went on to Chesterfield County for his career as a firefighter and medic, and I got the hose connected to the truck but the nozzle wouldn’t open. We banged it on the statue until it opened up and we pulled it over to the window on the courthouse side of the clerk’s office and blew shut the vault that held all the records for the county. That’s how we saved all the records or everything would have been gone.
Much, much later it was finally cool enough for us to back up big trucks here and load every bit of the records out and take them straight to Richmond to (the Library of Virginia). It took all night.
David Dickey, the commonwealth’s attorney at the time, his office was upstairs. We found his safe in the basement that night in the school board offices. The courthouse was under renovation and there were bottles in there where they were doing steel week. The gas was flowing into the basement and the pilot light was still burning, causing the explosion and the fire back drafted to the courthouse, causing the bottles to go up in flames.
Rural firefighting at that time was different. There were no tankers, you used your engines for the water. I backed up the truck to the hydrant, but it went dry. The infrastructure today is no better than it was then. Here it is 40 years later and the infrastructure of the water lines and stuff, nothing has really been done.
I set up a dump tank at the corner of Ford Avenue by the bank building and we had trucks hauling water to us. The trucks would get the water from the South River and dump into the tank and I’m using the engine to draft out of it the whole time. The manifold on that engine had turned cherry red. I raised the hood and I was sitting there just steadily pumping water.
Eleanor Powell was the dispatcher and she did one excellent job that day bringing companies (13 in total) in. All of Orange came, as did Elkton and Earlysville and of course, Madison was here with everything they had.
Harold Chapman was the sheriff at that time and I talked to him after the fire and asked how Eleanor handled it. He said she never got up from her desk. She never lost her composure. She just kept on making phone calls and talking to me on the radio.
I was here until four o’clock in next morning, completely exhausted. And a lot of the members of the Stanardsville fire department at that time got off work and got here about six seven o’clock at night. I just backed off then to let them do some of the work. My daughter was due to be born at any time. I made my decision after the explosion at the November firehouse meeting, I resigned. I said I had a baby due and that my emphasis needed to be at home.
Two weeks before the fire we had a freak snow, the largest amount that early in October in a century (Oct. 10, 1979). It’s funny how that sticks so clear, too.