Aiken's 1953 Gas Explosion
By the beginning of the 1950s, Aiken was well on its way to becoming a progressive and modern small town. For more than a century, it had been a destination for northerners who enjoyed the mild winters for golf and equestrian sports. Almost overnight, Aiken became the nearest town to the largest construction project ever undertaken in the United States, the Savannah River Plant. 1952 saw an influx of tens of thousands of people, and Aiken's downtown expanded to keep pace.
The early hours of January 27, 1953, began like every other weekday morning in Aiken. Residents went about their morning business—driving to workplaces, dropping children off at school. Then, the unthinkable happened.
A Blast Felt for Miles
At 8:30 a.m., an explosion caused by a natural gas leak ripped through the basement of Jones Electric Company. The building, located between Hayne and Richland Avenues on Laurens Street, burst into flames almost immediately. Soon after, the intense fire overtook four more buildings: McCreary Dry Goods, Liles Drugs, the Diana Shop and Platt Drugstore. All of these buildings burned uncontrollably within minutes of the explosion. People who lived in Aiken at that time compare the blast to a bomb hitting the town, and some reported that they could feel the shaking of the ground from miles away.
Aiken firefighters and medical crews rushed to the horrific scene downtown, but needed more assistance. Fire trucks and personnel from the Savannah River Plant drove 20 miles to help their newly adopted hometown cope with the disaster. As crews fought the fire, the cries of victims caught in the rubble could be heard. Earl Young and Ray Hydrick, two local men, pulled four people who were trapped in the debris to safety. Sadly, ten others lost their lives.
Firefighters finally extinguished the flames after several hours, revealing that almost an entire block of Laurens Street had been destroyed. It took several years to complete new construction to replace the buildings that were lost that day.
In Memory of Victims
Recently, a historical marker was erected on Laurens Street near where the gas leak that started the fire occurred. The inscription reads: "On this spot on Jan. 27, 1953, an explosion caused by a natural gas leak destroyed the Jones Electric Co. building and damaged Holley Hardware, Platt's Drug Store, R.W. McCreary's, The Diana Shop and Liles Drug Company. The explosion and ensuing fire left a gaping hole in the face of downtown Aiken. Ten citizens of Aiken were killed in the accident and are here remembered. They are Leila May Weeks, David O. Rutland, Emilie C. McCarter, John C. Watson, Charles Nelson Long, Mrs. R.B. Dunkin, John Henry (Jack) Neibling, James "Bubba" Moseley, Jack Holley and Ruth Madrey."