Woman recalls aftermath of explosion 50 years later

  • May 2014 explosion

  • Investigators continue their search for the cause of the May 28 explosion that killed a young mother and severely injured her infant daughter. Click here for story.

  • History note

  • Walter O. Snelling, a chemist and explosives expert with the U.S. Bureau of Mines, investigated in 1910 vapors coming from a Ford Model T. He learned they could be used for lighting, metal cutting and cooking. In 1912, he and ...

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  • History note

    Walter O. Snelling, a chemist and explosives expert with the U.S. Bureau of Mines, investigated in 1910 vapors coming from a Ford Model T. He learned they could be used for lighting, metal cutting and cooking. In 1912, he and his colleagues established the American Gasoline Co., the first commercial marketer of propane.

    SOURCE: Propane Education & Research Council

Kay Atzenhofer listened as her grandmother answered the phone at her Diboll home early one morning in 1964.

Then 12 years old, Atzenhofer sensed something had gone horribly wrong with her family back in La Ward.

"I think that was the first time I ever heard my grandmother ever verbally scream aloud," she said. "You don't know what's going on. You're scared. You have a lot of questions, and you are, I guess I might say, in shock."

The bus ride back to the Crossroads was about four to five hours long. Her father, James H. "Buddy" Goins; mother, Imogene; sister, Brenda, 3; and brother, Jimmy, 10, already had been rushed to a hospital to be treated for severe burns.

Monday marks 50 years since her family's one-story, wood-frame home exploded. Her younger brother, who suffered burns over 85 percent of his body, died a few days later.

Over the decades, time has distracted her from the emotional pain of that summer day.

"So many times, your body will try to compensate - to forget things to - I guess, ease the pain. I'm guessing there are a lot of things that were painful enough that I just blocked them out," Atzenhofer said.

But Atzenhofer has never forgotten the community's help to rebuild after the tragedy.

"You just can't thank those people enough," she said about the First Baptist Church in Lolita, the Industrial school district and residents of Calhoun, Jackson and Victoria counties. "If people had not stepped up, it might have been a totally different story or way of life."

Her younger brother's funeral was the first she ever attended.

"I know this is going to sound silly, but that was the first time I had a store-bought dress. My mother could sew beautifully, so she made all of my clothing," she said. "One of the ladies, Mrs. Shoemaker, in our church took me into town to find something to wear to the service. There was a store in Edna called RB Department Store."

Family bonds

Jimmy and Atzenhofer had fought just as any brother and sister 18 months apart would.

He loved playing baseball, pulling pranks and was going to be a middle school student, she said.

She remembers how her mother fretted and later laughed about a joke Jimmy once told her father's boss, the superintendent of Industrial School District.

"Jimmy said, 'If I've got two shoes and one sock, what do I need?' and the superintendent said, 'A sock.' And then, Jimmy hit him. My mom was like, 'Oh no!'" Atzenhofer said.

Her parents, still healing in the hospital from the explosion, weren't able to attend Jimmy's funeral.

Her father, the principal of La Ward Elementary School, returned to work when school started.

And after many months in several hospitals, her sister and mother came home, too.

Their home, provided by the school district, was rebuilt on the same parcel.

Her mother slept in the den on a hospital bed, playing soft instrumental music on the record player to calm her nerves.

Over time, her mother not only began sleeping better, but also she relearned to walk, write, even sew. She'd indulge Atzenhofer with a new outfit - but only when she was feeling up to it. She'd lost some mobility in her hands.

"There have been people through the years who have made the comment to me that, 'Oh, you were the lucky one' or 'Oh, you were so fortunate,' and I've always kind of thought to myself, 'Really?' I felt like I lived with so much guilt for a long time because I was not there, you know? . I guess it was hard for me to explain to them that I was devastated," she said.

Butane the cause

James Goins, meanwhile, was a very private person and did not talk about his personal problems very much, said his brother, Jack Goins, 82, of McFaddin.

"Only on one occasion did my brother ever mention that, and he didn't call it an explosion; he called it a fire in his house. He said it was one of the three worst days of his life," said his brother, recalling a conversation they had on a fishing trip. "The other time was when he was in World War II, and he lost three of his buddies in Saint Lo and then when he lost two of his friends in Battle of the Bulge."

Atzenhofer said her family thought it was an accident and never blamed anyone.

Officials attributed the blast to an accumulation of butane that was ignited by a water heater, according to Advocate archives.

And there's no record of the explosion with Industrial School District, the Edna Fire Department nor the Texas Railroad Commission.

Atzenhofer said Jimmy, who was sleeping on the floor that night, probably accidentally kicked the butane valve open with his foot. A large air conditioning unit sitting in the window may have made the butane fill the home at a slower pace, keeping it lower to the ground.

"That's the only thing that they were able to come up with that they thought made sense," she said. "As far as truly knowing what happened, I don't think anybody does."

Atzenhofer remembers all that was left of her house after the blast were the concrete steps that led up to it.

Her mother died in 2008; her father preceded her in death. Both died of natural causes.

She said no one in her family ever forgot to say "I love you" because "nothing is for sure in life."

Atzenhofer, now 62, lives in Hallettsville and is married. She used to work in the records department at Citizens Medical Center. She has two children and four grandchildren.

She learned recently about the May 28 home explosion in Victoria that killed a young mother and severely injured her 41/2-month-old daughter, who was found alive under about 12 feet of rubble.

And she sympathized with the family.

"No parent should have to bury their child, but it's sad when a child has to grow up without a parent," she said.