Tuesday, May 30th, 1972
It’s about 7PM on a warm spring evening in the quiet near-mountain town of Valdese, NC.
Jean Garrou (12), Regina Robinson (12) and her brother Donald Robinson Jr. (14), Michael Powell (10), Gloria Hammond (12), and Gloria Picou (10) are playing in a bomb shelter at Jean’s home.
Jean’s adoptive father, James Edward Garrou, an executive at the Alba Waldensian Inc. textile firm had built the shelter in the 1960’s when the threat of Russian missiles seemed very real even for rural residents of the state. He had installed the reinforced concrete structure on a hillside below his home and had stocked it with necessities, including a 500 gallon gasoline tank to power an electric generator.
Jean was not allowed inside the shelter, and Garrou kept it locked, with the key hidden. But the Saturday before, Jean or one of her friends had managed to find the hiding place, and they had opened the shelter to play in.
On this night, Jean and her friends had been able to get into the shelter once again, and had played briefly inside before deciding to leave. Perhaps their nerves got the best of them, since they knew they weren’t supposed to be there.
In their rush to leave, a light was left on. Because of this, they all decided to return to make sure the light was shut off and any evidence of their presence was cleaned up.
It was at that moment all across Valdese that an explosion shook the ground. Even in the neighboring towns of Drexel and Rutherford College, and further away in Connelly Springs people felt the rumble and wondered what it meant.
Rescue personnel were on scene at the Garrou home fairly quickly and discovered that where the shelter had once been, there was now only a large crater and the smell of gasoline.
Gloria Picou was found to have been thrown clear of the blast crater with only minor injuries. She would be taken to Valdese Hospital and would ultimately survive. None of the other children would be so lucky.
The first of the bodies was found across a street from the explosion scene, some 300 feet distant. Recovery of the other bodies would require heavy equipment to move the rubble. Most of the children had apparently either been above the shelter or on the steps when it exploded.
Investigators were at the site the next day. Eventually ATF agents and men from the State Bureau of Investigation and Treasury Department would examine the aftermath and would decide that leaking gasoline must have built up as vapor inside the shelter which then exploded after a spark from the light switch ignited it. It was thought that the children must have damaged the line the Saturday before as they had been playing inside, causing a leak.
The explosion and the deaths of 5 children in the close-knit town cast a long shadow over the summer of 1972. People who lived through it remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the explosion. Seemingly everyone either knew the families involved or were separated by only a couple degrees.
Today though, only the older generations have any real knowledge of the events of that May evening.
A year after the explosion, a local park was dedicated to the 5 children Valdese lost.
“Children’s Memorial Park” sits just off Main Street, a stone’s throw from the downtown. And in the park you’ll find a monument dedicated to the memories of Jean Anita Garrou, Gloria Lee Hammond, Michael Richard Powell, Donald Lee Robinson, and Regina Gail Robinson.