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VALDESE — Monday marks 50 years since a bomb shelter exploded, killing five children and rocked a community to the core.

May 30, 1972, was a Tuesday that saw the senior class of Valdese High School preparing to graduate and children looking forward to summer vacation.

But the innocence of childhood for many was blown apart for the town that evening when six children had gone into the bomb shelter at 512 Campbell Ave., Valdese. The shelter was on the property owned by James Edward Garrou in the early 1960s as a response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, according to newspaper stories about the tragedy. Garrou kept the shelter locked and the key was hidden. But it’s believed that the key was found and the children had played in the shelter the Saturday before, according to the newspaper stories.

The shelter was constructed with reinforced concrete and was well-stocked with food, drinks and a generator, according to the stories. It also had a 550-gallon gas tank that was buried outside of the walls of the shelter with a line running into the shelter.

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A U.S. Treasury agent who investigated the blast said at the time that the explosion may have been due to a leaky gasoline line. After playing inside the shelter, the children were leaving when one of them tried to turn the lights out. A spark from electric switch apparently set off the explosion, the newspaper reported the agent saying at the time.

Robert Heilman was 5 years old and lived in the same neighborhood. He had walked with his mother down to their garden. And that’s where they were when the explosion happened.

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“And I remember seeing brick and debris flying over houses,” Heilman said.

The editor of The News Herald at the time, Jim Blakeley, said the wreckage around the shelter defied description. Others said the smell of gasoline permeated the air.

Heilman’s father and older brothers went to the scene but because he was so young, he wasn’t allowed to go.

One of Heilman’s cousins died in the blast and another one survived it, he said.

Ernie Bertalot was a 27-year-old firefighter for the town of Valdese and was on his way back from training when he heard the call come over his radio. He went to the scene.

“It was devastation everywhere,” Bertalot said.

“The days after that in Valdese was very solemn,” Bertalot said. He added, “It really hurt the whole town.”

It was a small town where everybody knew everybody else, he said. Nine out of 10 people in town knew the families whose children were killed, he said.

“It was just a big loss,” Bertalot said.

Johnnie Carswell was a 24-year-old Burke County deputy at the time whose assigned patrol area was everything east of the Drexel intersection. He went to the scene to lend assistance, if necessary, he said.

“What I remember about it most pulling upon the scene was the people that were there. And how the people were crying,” Carswell said. “It was just disbelief. It was just disbelief that a tragedy involving young folks like it could happen. You know nothing like that had ever happened.”

Carswell said there were people both young and old who showed up on the scene. He also remembers heavy equipment like a backhoe being used to dig around the rubble to find the children.

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In the days following the devastating event, people had questions, he said. A lot of it was questioning why God would take these children, Carswell said.

Ronnie Thompson was 21 years old and was playing in a softball game at the Crestline Furniture ball field, which was located where Food Lion in Valdese now sits. It was close to railroad tracks so when he heard the explosion he thought it was a train that had wrecked.

He and the people playing ball then heard the sirens from the fire department and the rescue squad. And so the ballgames stopped, Thompson said.

Like so many others, Thompson went to the scene.

“It was just an awful scene, awful scene,” Thompson said.

Times were different in 1972. It wasn’t uncommon that parents didn’t know where their children were at all times.

Thompson said a lot of parents were checking on their children that night to make sure they were OK.

Thompson said there were some other homes in town that had fallout shelters so there was talk of closing them for good. The fire department also was scrambling to make sure those shelters were safe, he said.

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In the days after, the families laid their children to rest.

The five children killed in the blast were Jean Anita Garrou, 12, Michael Richard Powell, 10, Gloria Lee Hammond, 12, and siblings Donald Lee Robinson, 14, and Regina Gail Robinson, 12.

Flags flew at half-staff and a community memorial service was held.

The tragedy became national news. The Associated Press and the New York Times covered it.

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There also was a fundraising effort to build a park in memory of the children lost. The Children’s Park sits just off U.S. 70 on the eastern side of town.

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