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Oakhurst IGA, site of 1983 blast, to close

By Megan Workman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In 1983, a gas explosion unexpectedly demolished the Oakhurst Foodland and injured 18 people who were inside the store.

On Sunday, the current version of that grocery store, an IGA, will close its doors. This time, the shutdown won't come as a surprise to the 12 employees, some who even witnessed the blast nearly 30 years ago.

Employees marked down the store's entire inventory by 25 percent a few weeks ago. Everything left in the store sold for 50 percent off the regular price over the past two weeks.

By Thursday afternoon, the nine aisles inside the store were completely bare. A couple small shelves still stocked with spices, coffee, cosmetics, baby food and light bulbs welcomed the customers who walked in, shocked to see it stripped clean.

A family of three strolled through the automatic door as the woman said that the young boy behind her wanted to visit the store "one last time."

Other people hugged workers who have bagged their groceries and welcomed them to the store for years.

South Charleston residents Pat and Justin Smith grabbed some discounted items Thursday. They wanted to say their last goodbyes to a store they've shopped at since before the gas explosion.

"I wanted to say goodbye to the workers. They are just so friendly," Pat Smith said.

Oakhurst IGA owner John Koehn said he is shutting his store down on Sunday. He didn't give a specific reason why he is closing the store he's owned since the early 1970s.

Koehn has sold the property and sources familiar with the closing expect the building to house an electrical school. The store's equipment will be sold at an online auction.

Locals like Jody Hensley, who has visited the grocery store since the 1970s, don't want to remember the empty aisles but prefer to reminisce about the "good ol' days."

Hensley's grandparents -- like most of the community, it seemed -- shopped every Saturday at what was then called the Oakhurst Foodland, she said. The store became an IGA in 2005.

"It didn't matter if you paid 10 cents more for something at the store, it was worth it," Hensley said. "My grandparents raised me and my little sister and [the store employees] watched us grow up just like they watched so many other people in the community grow up.

"They watched my little boy grow up and now my little boy is 6 [feet], 2 [inches]."

The South Charleston resident remembers when she would sit in the car as her grandparents shopped. Since her grandmother didn't own a microwave, she cooked everything, which gave the young Hensley more time to read her books.

"I remember hoping we would sit in the shade in the parking lot. My teachers would come by and I would think, 'Oh good! They saw me reading,' " Hensley recalled. "It was the go-to place."

On Oct. 17, 1983, her grandparents were going about their daily routine when they got stuck in a traffic jam. They were only about a quarter-mile from the Foodland when they realized something wasn't right.

A Columbia Gas engineer had prepared an incorrect map of gas lines in the area of the Davis Creek Foodland. During excavation for the sewer line, a backhoe operator -- who had been told that the line had been abandoned -- snagged the gas lines with his machine, causing the leak that led to the blast, according to a Gazette report later that year.

Koehn, the most seriously injured of the 18 victims, told the Charleston Daily Mail in December 1983 how he noticed a "very light" odor of gas. He described the explosion as "more like an earthquake, a rumbling type thing with building movement." The entire store filled with smoke as walls crumbled.

The co-manager at the time, Terry Phillips, said "there was a tremendous blast. ... I was knocked backward down onto the floor. I was dazed but I could see small fires all around me."

Columbia Gas paid a $200,000 fine levied by the state Public Service Commission after the blast. The company paid an additional $3,945 for interest. The PSC said the company had improperly handled the gas leak and improperly tied off a gas line that led to the explosion.

The store was rebuilt and reopened in 1986.

While many will remember the explosion, Hensley will remember how the grocery store was everyone's first job.

The young girls worked as cashiers while the boys carried groceries out to customers' cars, she said. Hensley worked at the Oakhurst store, too. She learned how to make donuts after the deli was set up.

For Hensley, the store was much more than just a place to shop.

In an open letter to the Oakhurst grocery store and its employees, Hensley wrote, "You have made such a difference in the lives of your customers. We have seen you not as our customer service providers, but as extended members of our families. I think I can speak for many of your patrons both present and previous when I say we love you and we will miss you all."

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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