Fifty-five years later, the painful images of Richmond’s downtown explosions are still vivid for survivors as well as those who lost loved ones on that deadly Saturday afternoon.
Through extensive images, legendary Richmond photographer Ralph Pyle and local journalists documented the horrible day of April 6, 1968, and its aftermath. Nearly all those moments captured and shared in the years since are black-and-white images.
Those pictures showed the grit on the streets and grit in the faces of determined first responders and volunteers who bravely rescued victims, both living and dead, battled flames, and cleaned up debris so businesses and residents could attempt normalcy.
Now some previously unseen color images have come to light through an unexpected gift to Wayne County Historical Museum.
A man from Lacey, Washington recently mailed 12 color square photos to museum staff after sorting through pictures following his father’s death.
His dad happened to be in downtown Richmond with his camera that day, capturing stunned residents, flames, black smoke and debris that had rained onto the streets.
Kerry George, WCHM collections manager, said she was surprised to receive the mailing, but is grateful for the donor’s thoughtfulness in sharing such a rare view.
“Color brings it home a little bit more,” George said of the photos. “…It’s one of those connections that we didn’t have before …”
Those color images might help make history more vivid for those too young to have visited the stores and State Theatre that many people fled.
George said the museum doesn’t have a lot of artifacts from the explosions besides a few photos, newspapers and memories shared by those who witnessed the tragedy.
The items that have made their way to the North A Street archive so far include half of a cast-iron skillet and parts from a revolver from Marting Arms sporting goods store, the epicenter of the blasts. George said that debris quickly was taken to landfills so the city could rebuild as soon as possible.
The museum is planning to add some of these newly discovered images to a permanent exhibit planned for next year, highlighting the city’s Main Street and Promenade.
Although no special commemorations are planned for the 55th anniversary, those who want to pay tribute to the victims can do so at the longtime brick memorial at South Fifth and East Main streets or at the newer monument featuring the 41 victims’ names.
That monument was created for the explosions’ 50th anniversary and placed on the museum’s west lawn.
Those lost were from Richmond as well as surrounding Wayne County communities of Middleboro, Centerville, Cambridge City and Greens Fork, along with New Paris and Lewisburg, Ohio.
George said some visitors will stop at the downtown monument and then learn about the museum’s tribute and stop by to see it. She said the new tribute has been well-received by the public, and families of the victims seem grateful for the names of their loved ones to be remembered.
“What we’re here for is to not let people forget,” George said, noting the museum serves “as stewards of our collective history.”
At 1:47 p.m. April 6, 1968, back-to-back explosions ripped through Richmond’s busy downtown shopping and business district. The explosions, subsequent fires and heavy debris killed 41 area residents ages 7 to 72. In addition, more than 120 people were injured.
Those who perished and their towns:
- Cambridge City: David Lee Gibbs, 18; Kelly Kirkland, 8; Robin Kirkland, 11; Virginia C. Kirkland, 38
- Centerville: J. Bruce Eckenrode, 60; Marguerite Eckenrode, 51; Charles H. Otte, 59; Lelah M. Otte, 61
- Fountain City: Gregory “Greg” Harold Oler, 21
- Greens Fork: Ruth Ann Nelson, 28
- Middleboro: Louise Marting, 36; Donald L. Marting, 39
- Richmond: Jonathan “John” D. Abraham, 15; Hays “Pete” Bennett, 41; the Rev. J. Thomas “Tom” Boyce, 33; Violet Loraine Byrum, 43; Eunice Clevenger, 42; Nora Coffman, 59; Pamela “Jeanie” Davis, 18; Roy L. Freyburger, 72; Jeffrey “Jeff” Douglas Gabbard, 7, and his mother, Laura Pearl Gabbard, 28; Raymond Edward “Eddie” Gilmore, 24; Diane Johnson, 19; Anges Lefforge, 62; Debbie Louise Lunsford, 13; Shirley M. McLemore, 26; Elaine K. Petitt, 14; Blaine Scott Reeves Sr., 25; Alvin F. Rice, 50; Mary Ella Roan, 50; Imogene Ross, 39; Joseph “Joe” I. Slattery, 64; Catherine Jean Smith, 44; Audrey Marilyn Teaford, 53; Thomas “Tom” Woodhurst Toler, 16; James M. Trimble, 42; Evonda Kay Twine, 13; Rose D. Vigran, 72.
- Preble County, Ohio: Linnie Golda Gregg, 39, New Paris; Mary Louise Grove, 39, Lewisburg.
A version of this article appeared in the April 5 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.