A week post explosion, Rockbridge community mourns victims with candlelight vigil

The explosion killed four people, three of them members of the owning family

By Shayne Dwyer - Reporter

ROCKBRIDGE COUNTY, Va. - It's been one week since a deadly explosion rocked the small community of Buena Vista in Rockbridge County, and Friday night, the community gathered for a candlelight vigil. Four people died in the blast, three others were injured, and many lost their favorite place to grab a quick bite or talk with friends in town.

Even in tragedy and rubble, the South River Market is still healing souls. The site of the explosion still looks like a war zone, with piled rubble and burned out cars. But Friday night, it was a place of peace for people in the area who said they've had trouble sleeping, eating and finding the strength to go on in the days since the explosion. 

It may be the longest week this part of Rockbridge County has ever lived. Time heals all wounds, but for Rosa Clark, it feels like seven seconds rather than seven days gone by.

"Anything that happened in the community, you know, you found out the news here, you prayed together, you wished everybody well and if something bad were to happen, you'd know you'd always feel that you could come down and say something," Clark said.

Clark said her husband walked out of the South River Market with onion plants Friday, no more than a minute before it exploded. She said they were in the store nearly every day, and many others in the community shared the same sentiment. They came once a day or they came when they needed the last minute items or they came to get yellow tomatoes that they said they couldn't get anywhere else in the area. The store was also known for its hot dogs and friendly faces, in a rural stretch of town about 15 minutes outside of Lexington, this was the equivalent of their main street cafe.

And now, as the station stands in ruins, it still is the gathering place where people are drawn back to pray and find a special connection. Amy Coffee was one of three women who helped organize the vigil Friday night. She lived right up the street and was one the volunteers who spent the day handing out sandwiches and drinks to first responders on the scene.

"It's been a complete devastation to everybody, my heart breaks for the family. My heart is broken and I can't imagine how they feel," Coffee said.

The fence surrounding the rubble pile was covered with flowers, flags and balloons. A large banner sharing a message of support had a cup of permanent markers secured above it for people to write their own messages. After the vigil was over, a local gentleman hung a poster with the faces of those who lost their lives.

Store owner Roger Roberts survived the blast but died in a hospital. His son Kevin Roberts, granddaughter Samantha Roberts Lewis and daily customer Paul Ruley all died at the store.

Those who came to offer support overflowed the parking lot. Many of those closest to the people who died did not attend Friday because they said it would be to difficult to do, but for those that did come out, it was a chance to find peace with each other.

"It doesn't matter if you like the person or not, we all come together at times like this and we make it happen and we come together in support and love on the family and each other," Coffee said.

Three other people were injured in the explosion; one of them was Ricky Maybush. His mother Elizabeth Hardy was at the vigil and said he is home from a hospital and expected to recover. The two remaining survivors have not been publicly named and those closest to them said they want to heal privately.

Seven people in total were directly affected, but that number grows exponentially when considering how many people the store and the people who died in it touched.

"Roger was the backbone of the store. He's been here forever since I can remember. We went to school with him and everything so it's hard to think that you won't see them again," Clark said.

Virginia State Police continues to investigate the explosion, which they said is not suspicious. Virginia State Police spokesman said they day of the explosion that he was confident the investigators would determine what happened.

Unlike other gas stations, the South River Market's gas storage tanks were not buried underground, but rather sitting in a pit just below ground level and not insulated with earth. The investigators will determine what factor, if any, that played in the explosion and ensuing fireball that consumed the building.

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