Saturday was the 33rd anniversary of the Kopper Kettle explosion. TWER looks back on the era-defining trauma-rama with the help of some never before seen photos and old newspaper clippings – first in a three-part series. Check out our giant gallery of unpublished photos here. And ABC News coverage of the blast here. And a song about the whole thing here.
It’s one of those things.
“That was back around when… I was there when… I remember when…”
On Sunday morning, Jan. 15, 1978, half a block of businesses on East Magnolia Ave. in downtown Auburn blew the hell up (kapow, boom, war-zone), chief among them in the minds of those that remember the aftermath and write blurbs about it in the sidebars of regional magazines and annual remembrances in newspapers, the Kopper Kettle.
The explosion was caused, best anyone could figure, by a gas leak somewhere underneath one of the stores or restaurants (likely the Kettle), and it seriously was like a bomb went off, packed with the punch of at least 100 pounds of explosives it was later estimated.
“I ran as fast I could for the truck to call the men on the radio and tell them the town had just blown up,” Lt. Tamp McDonald of the Auburn Fire Department told the Opelika-Auburn News. McDonald was rounding the corner in an El Camino, investigating a strong gas smell, when it did. A shot of him is the photo the Opelika- Auburn News ran for their Monday cover. It was taken by Brad Ashmore, the paper’s main photographer. I tracked Brad down a few years back and he gave me a box of his old negatives. Inside were rolls marked “Kopper Kettle”–a dozen of them.
I finally scanned them. Most have never been seen before.
The Kopper Kettle became the Kopper Kettle sometime in the early 1960s, this 24 hours-ish greasy spoon type place that served breakfast all day and hosted frat boy ketchup fights all night (which got so bad they finally became a fine-able offense: $100). It stopped being the Kopper Kettle at 8:13 that Sunday morning, at least that’s the time Rev. Charles Britt remembers showing on the Central Bank clock at Toomer’s Corner. Had his last red light, at the corner of Gay and Magnolia, lasted 10 more seconds, he would have been killed. And had attorney Andy Gentry’s wife not asked him to stay home with the kids that morning instead of going to his law office upstairs at the Brownfield Building (which he owned, and which was completely destroyed), he would have been killed. And had it happened 17 minutes later when everyone was arriving to hear Britt’s sermon at Auburn United Methodist Church just down and across the street from the Kopper Kettle, a lot of people probably would have been killed or at least seriously injured because the blast shot shards of 90-year old stained class into the walls like throwing stars. Thank God no one was there, because obviously it’s horrible when people get killed in horrible, freak accidents like that… but also because the story just wouldn’t be the same. People wouldn’t be able to use it as a conversation starter, at least now with the same tone. It wouldn’t be a message board point of “I was there” pride. Shirts couldn’t have been printed up. Songs couldn’t have been recorded.
If even one person had died—or really even just injured, which no one was—you wouldn’t be able to talk about the timing. Or you would, but it wouldn’t have the same impact, as it were. The timing is what makes it—how does a Sunday morning blast that jostles the bird feeders of old women seven miles away, that shatters windows out of at least 70 businesses, that blows dental chairs three stories into the air, that blows dental records six miles away, that gets a small college town on national news that night (which a vacationing Dean Foy saw on T.V. while watching the Super Bowl up in Aspen), that knocks my mom out of bed upstairs at the Baptist Student Union a block away and makes her think (thanks to the mushroom cloud) that the Russians are attacking (because take out Auburn and you take out America), that makes my dad think that God is talking to him, telling him he should maybe change the guest sermon he was writing for First Baptist Church down in the church’s basement… how does something like that not kill someone? Someones? How are there not bodies in the streets?
Of course, some of the first responders thought there were. That’s actually one of the story’s you hear with it–that the firemen rounded the corner and had an oh, the humanity moment… before realizing that the charred torsos and dusty skulls they saw were just mannequins (oh, the humannequins) from Imperial Formal Wear and Parker’s clothing store, which was going out of business anyway.
Another is about the other attorney with the law office upstairs whose diploma — true story — landed more than a mile away in his mother’s front yard. (Mom always led with that, which means I did, too, and no one believed me, but sure enough, The Plainsman confirmed it.) There’s also the “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” thing — it was playing at Village Theater, one of the places completely gutted. The only complete line left on the marquee was “We Are Not Alone.” So if wasn’t the commies, maybe the aliens.
National Guardsmen were called in and Alagasco sent an army of workers to solve what needed solving and they cut off gas to hundreds of residents, most of them students who half froze through the night thanks to temperatures in the 20s). People smelled imaginary gas leaks everywhere for weeks. And then… that was it.
The introduction to that year’s Glomerata: “The calm of the year seemed interrupted only by the gas explosion in town Other than that students continued participation in a dance marathon, club and social gatherings or just pursued personal interests.”
Vietnam was over. Streaking was over. Football sucked. Elvis was dead.
But… “that was back around when the Kopper Kettle blew up… I was here when the Kopper Kettle blew up… I remember when the Kopper Kettle blew up.”
It’s one of those things.
Check out our extensive gallery of Brad Ashmore’s never before seen photos from the day of the explosion here.
* Rare candids of Pat Sullivan at the 1971 Heisman banquet
* My first meeting with Dean Foy
* Pompadours on the Plains: the 50s revival at Auburn
* ‘Cammy Koozie’s’ fund family’s trip to Glendale
* An interview with Auburn YouTube sensation Chris Lowe
* Former Auburn football kills elephant with just a bow and arrow
* TWER interviews Paul Finebaum about Bo Jackson’s Heisman campaign
* Crowd shots from the 1973 Auburn-Florida game
* The Secret History of an Underground Iron Bowl
I remember my mom telling me about this just about a million times. She was a senior in 78. Fantastic read. Can’t wait for the rest!
And “Oh, the humannequins!” is pretty much the greatest thing ever…until the next greatest thing ever (previous winners have included such gems as “Absolutzenkirchen!” so it’s only a matter of time).
I was in school and living about 3 miles from downtown. The explosion shook me out of bed.
Thanks for sharing the memories and photos!
Forget the marquee – check out that sweet VW Bug with off-road tires and CB Antenna!
Remember it well. Heard (and felt) the blast from about a mile away and looked out the door in time to see a smoke plume climbing upward. Didn’t have gas that day and it was cold. The news reports were all over the place; II remember that one news service later that day reported that a city block had been leveled.
I graduated in 75, pretty sure we had color film by then…..
Black and white was typically used for newspaper photos.
Dad here: Great story son. I didn’t preach that day. They called off Church due to possible other gas leaks. Good thing too, I wasn’t ready!
Jil Chastain Clowers says
I was living out at Gentilly Trailer Park and the explosion woke me up. Natually, I had no idea what it was, but after some phone calls to friends I found out what had happened. I worked on The Plainsmen staff at the time at it was a BIG story as you can imagine. I used to have a tee shirt with a drawing of a kettles with an explosion coming out of the top with the date of the event on it, but lost it in an apartment fire the night of the millinneum when my own apartment caught on fire in Birmingham and everything was lost! Two memorable days!!
I remember reading at the time (there may be a photo somewhere) that the tag line from “Close Encounters” survived on the theatre plate glass window that had been blasted out. The line was “We are not alone.” It certainly seemed that way that day–in a good sense–since nobody was killed.
barbara hardwick says
YES!!!, My husband tommy, and i were married students…we had put our son russell’s borrowed crib together the night before, for his 1st night out of the bassinet…..when the Kettle exploded early the next morning, the boom was so loud all the way down opelika rd at Starr’s Trailer Park,(the space across from HIGHLAND’S club, now) we jumped out of bed and raced down the hall, thinking the crumby crib had collapsed on the baby!!!!?? Got dressed and headed to church (around the corner from the Kettle)then found out what had happened…EVERYTHING WAS RAZED!!! Big stained glass windows blown out of the churches, a mess!! too bad i had just paid tommy’s dentist’s bill, next store to the Kettle..! No sign of that bill left behind!!!
Amy Epps says
I know I am posting late, but I was searching for the exact date that the Kopper Kettle blew up and found this article. I met my husband the night before that and it was because of the Kopper Kettle that we started dating! I was a freshman at Auburn and lived in Alumni Hall just around the corner. The University evacuated us due to the potential for more explosions and we all had to find places to stay for several days until they could determine it safe enough for us to return.
When the blast occurred, it literally shook the windows in my dorm! My room faced the back of the dorm toward the Kopper Kettle. My roommate and I sat straight up in bed and I said, “Have we been bombed?” Being an elementary-aged child in the 60s always made us wary that we were going to get nuked!
My roommate and I evacuated (along with many others) to Eagle’s West Apartments. They were new that year to Auburn. That afternoon a big bunch of kids got together and we were playing footbal on the Drill Field. The young man I had met the night before was with the group that was playing football. We started talking that afternoon.
One week later, we met up again in a group of friends and that started a courtship and we got married in 1984.
So – from the devastation of the Kopper Kettle, came a marriage that has lasted 27+ years and two daughters!
Amy Sparks Epps ’82
That’s great, Amy — thanks for sharing! My mom thought we had been nuked, too.
Luke Frisbee says
I lived four blocks west of the Kettle when it blew. I heard the boom but I lived near AFB’s before Auburn so I figured it was a sonic boom.
Amy was very discrete. I remember a co-ed i had recently “met” calling me up for a place to “sleep”.
She was a wonderful girl and the silver-lining to the Kopper Kettle explosive cloud….
Maryanne where are you?
That was on sunday morning, I was sleeping in my apartment next to Moma Goldberg’s/Magnolia and the blast woke me up!…thank god it was early Sunday and the services hadn’t started!
I was there as a Soph… – though I had no clue what had happened. Remember being awaken by Frat brothers from the fog of the night before at a god early hour of 10’ish or so… Went downtown and saw the leftovers, back to bed I went (it was a rough the night before). Never ate there.
Bud McLaughlin says
A senior journalism student, I covered the story for the old Auburn Bulletin. It was a wild day ….
Bud McLaughlin says
I was a senior journalism student and covered the story for the old Auburn Bulletin.
Johnny Alabama says
I recall a somewhat scandalous rumor that they found a safe in the rubble that was never claimed by anyone.
The War Eagle Reader says
I know there are some conspiracy theories out there, haven’t heard that though…
SUE CREAMER says
I WORKED AT KOPPER KETTLE BACK IN THE LATE SIXTIES…WAS SO VERY SAD TO LEARN IT WAS DESTROYRD..
Allen Lukkar says
I remember. I lived in Magnolia Apartments just down the street.
Actually, Will Dickey, now with Jacksovill Sun, was first photographer there. He lived next to Super Foods and the blast knocked him out of his bed onto the floor. He grabbed his camera and ran up the street and began shooting pics. He abs Asmore were good friends. He has gre as t pics too.
I was a kid living in Opelika by the airport and I remember it waking me from bed rattling both of my windows. Sometimes you can still see the greasy spot on the new brick where it once existed…Auburn history…
William N. Graham says
I was a paid volunteer fireman for the Auburn Fire Department at tengine drove up.hat time. My fraternity house, FarmHouse, was on Toomer street just about two blocks down Magnolia. The blast shook the house and I jumped from bed into my bunker pants. As I was doing so the scanner came on and Lt. Tamp McDonald said “Auburn get some trucks up here. There’s been an explosion.” The dispatcher replied “is there a fire?” McDonald replied ” the corner is gone.” I drove to the seen, parked behind Ware Jewelers, and was standing at the plug when the engine drove up. We put on suction hose and I could hear the dispatcher on the truck radio repeating Signal 1000, all firemen report to work, over and over. The sky light of the bank on Gay St. blew out the top and there were deposit slips and debris all over the street. The parking meters across the street were blown flat down on the street and burst open scattering nickels around on the pavement. Manning the hand line on the street beside the ladder by my self became very tiring. I made a Robinson hose loop with it and was able to sit on it and hold the nozzle. After time this became tiring and I found some bricks on the ground to prop up the nozzle with. The spray from the ladder pipe on the ladder froze on my coat, coating that side with ice. It was my first BIG fire. Bill Graham, AU78