The New London School Explosion

March 18, 1937

March 18th, 1937 started out like any other day for the residents of the quiet but affluent town of New London, Texas. Later that day, the small community would suffer through the worst school disaster in American history. March 18th, 1937 is known by survivors and their descendants as “the day a generation died.”

In 1937 New London, located in northwest Rusk County, was surrounded by oilfields. The London Consolidated School, a modern E-shaped school building that housed students from first to the eleventh grade, was a source of local pride that reflected the community’s newfound wealth.

Earlier that year, the school board elected to save money by cancelling their natural gas contract. Instead, they hired plumbers to tap into Parade Gasoline Company’s residue gas line to tap the natural gas that was extracted with the oil. This gas was usually treated as a waste product and was flared off. This widespread practice was usually ignored by the oil companies, since the natural gas did not have any commercial value.

The teachers and students at the London Consolidated School were unaware that just below the floorboards, a dangerous natural gas leak had been building up for some time. The gas had escaped from the line tap and built up inside a 253-foot crawlspace that ran the entire length of the building.

March 18th fell on a Thursday. Students from first through fourth grade had already been dismissed from class, but older students were preparing for the Interscholastic Meet in nearby Henderson. School was cancelled on Friday so that students could participate in the event. Members of the PTA were meeting in the gym. Students were eagerly awaiting the end of the school day.

Between 3:05 and 3:20 P.M. Lemmie R. Butler, an instructor of manual training, turned on an electric sander in the school’s shop class. The switch threw a spark, which ignited the mixture of gas and air that had been building up.

Explosion

The explosion could be heard for miles.

The building disintegrated almost instantly. People who witnessed the disaster claimed that the walls bulged just before the roof lifted from the building and crashed back down. The main wing of the school crumpled. A four-thousand pound block flew from the building, crushing a 1936 Chevrolet that was parked outside.

Search and Rescue

Forty teachers and five hundred students were in the building when the spark ignited the explosion. Alerted by the deafening noise, area residents raced to the scene. They began digging through the rubble with their bare hands, frantic to find their children and their neighbors’ children. Phone calls were made, telegrams were sent, and help quickly began to pour in. Workers from the local oil fields arrived with heavy equipment and began the desperate search for survivors in the rubble. Ultimately, over 2000 people participated in the all-night search in the cold rain. Within seventeen hours, they had located all of the teachers and students – both living and dead – and cleared out the rubble.

Most of the casualties were burned or dismembered past the point of recognition. One boy was identified only by the pull string from his favorite shirt that was found in his jeans pocket. Others died of injuries suffered during the disaster. One mother had a heart attack when she learned her daughter had died in the explosion. In some instances, parents came across their own children as they dug through the debris.

One of the witnesses to the disaster was a school bus driver. The elementary students who were dismissed early had boarded the bus, and Lonnie Barber had just begun his route when a sudden rush of wind hit the bus. The deafening sound of the explosion soon followed. He turned to look and was horrified to realize that there was nothing left of the community’s flagship school but rubble. By his estimates, it was around 3:20 by that time. In a singular act of heroism, Barber took his small charges home before returning to the school to join the search, fully aware that his own four children had been in the school. Three of the Barber children escaped, although with serious injuries. His youngest son, eleven-year-old Arden, did not survive.

Emergency medical personnel poured in from the Scottish Rites, Baylor University and the Hospital for Crippled Children. Makeshift morgues were set up to house the bodies. The Mother Francis Hospital in nearby Tyler, Texas had been planning a dedication ceremony before it opened its doors. Instead, they took care of the injured.

Even reporters who had arrived to cover the scene became caught up in the rescue effort. One particular reporter was a 20-year-old who was covering his first story. This young man – Walter Cronkite – went on to cover many more stories during his long career. When asked about the tragedy years later, Cronkite answered, "I did nothing in my studies nor in my life to prepare me for a story of the magnitude of that New London tragedy, nor has any story since that awful day equaled it."

Approximately 311 people died in the explosion, 294 of which were children. The exact number of casualties may never be known. Many of the students were the children of transient oil workers, and some of these parents may have collected the bodies and taken them away for private burials in the days following the disaster. Most of the known victims were buried at New London’s Pleasant Hill Cemetery. Some families lost as many as five children in the explosion. Expressions of sympathy poured in from around the world. Adolf Hitler, who was then Chancellor of Germany, even sent his condolences.

The gymnasium where the PTA had been holding their meeting was one of the few buildings that were not damaged. It was converted into temporary classrooms, and classes resumed only ten days later.

Legislation

Natural gas is odorless in its natural state, and leaks are very difficult to detect. Many students at the New London Consolidated School had been complaining of headaches in the weeks before the explosion, but that was the only suggestion that anything was seriously wrong. The Texas Legislature called an emergency session shortly after the tragedy. As a result, an unpleasant-smelling substance called mercaptan was added to natural gas so that future leaks would be easy to detect.

The superintendent of the school, W.C. Shaw, was forced to resign. The public held him responsible for the disaster. He was suffering from his own private tragedy, having lost his own son in the explosion. Over seventy lawsuits were filed, but most did not come to trial.

The story of the London School Explosion received little public attention in the years following the disaster, primarily because the residents were reluctant to discuss the topic. There was no grief counseling or professional help available for victims at that time, and they had difficulty talking about their experiences, even years later. In 2008, however, some of the last living survivors shared their stories in a documentary entitled, “When Even Angels Wept.” A cenotaph, or empty tomb, was erected in 1939 on the Texas State Highway 42 median. A historic marker, erected in 1989, memorializes the victims.

References

Texas State Handbook Online: New London School Explosion

http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/yqn01

The New London Texas School Explosion

http://nlsd.net/index2.html

The New London School Disaster

http://jayssouth.com/texas/newlondon/

Wikipedia: New London School Explosion

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_London_School_explosion

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