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MARCH 18, 1937: Texas Town Loses Entire Generation Of Children In A Single Day.
- New London Texas School Explosion | Home
In Memory of the Men, Women and Children who perished and those who survived
NEW LONDON SCHOOL EXPLOSION
About two years ago I was reading through a book containing my family genealogy when I came across a side note next to the names of two of my cousins, Pauline and Donald Barrett: "They died in the New London School explosion."
I had discovered references to other tragedy's throughout the book, so this one didn't strike me as unusual at first. I continued reading, and at one point I came across a reference to the event a second time: "They died in the New London School explosion." Now my curiosity was piqued.
I was sitting with my wife, Brandie, and as I read the line I commented, "What kind of explosion could kill two children in a classroom?" I was frustrated because there were no more details given in the book, but as I studied it closer I did notice one thing that seemed a little odd; there was a six year difference in the age of the siblings. Still naïve about the incident, I was wondering why the two were in the same classroom together. I envisioned scenes from, "The little house on the prairie," where the children of all ages attended one class.
I had a thousand questions running through my head, and I thumbed through the book from front to back hoping to find more information on the accident when suddenly it hit me-Google! Ah, yes, the modern answer to all inquiries, questions, and curiosity's.
Feeling a little pessimistic, I went to my computer asking myself, "What are the odds of finding some vague event like this on a search?" I opened the website and began typing in the search box: New London Sc...
Before I could finish typing the word "School", the drop down menu appeared and there it was. I was surprised at how quickly it came up but not nearly as surprised as I was after clicking on the first option.
"Hundreds of children killed!"
"Worst school disaster in US history!"
At approximately 3:17 on that fateful day of March 18, 1937, shop teacher, Lemmie Butler, flipped a switch to an electric sander. The switch threw a spark which ignited a layer of natural gas that had leaked from a gas line. The school had tapped into a run-off line that flowed from the nearby oilfields.Due to the fact that natural gas is odorless, a crawl space approximately 250 feet long had filled with the leaking gas without anyone being aware of it.
Witnesses all said that at the moment of the explosion the entire school elevated off the ground, appearing to float in mid air, and then crashed back to earth. The majority of the school structure collapsed in upon itself turning into a disaster site of concrete rubble and helpless children and adults.
The official death toll from the explosion has been set at 296, but it is agreed upon by most that those numbers are not accurate and that the exact number will probably never be known. There were many families during that time who had moved from far and wide to take advantage of the oil boom. After the accident many of the families moved, taking their lost with them to be buried in their home towns. Many of them had been traumatized, so there were no notifications as to where they had gone or what cemeteries they planned to make arrangements with. It is commonly accepted that the actual number of dead from the explosion stands at well over 300. The number of those accounted for are: 272 children, 16 teachers, and 8 visitors. It is also worthy of note to point out that there were later deaths of rescuers and family members due to lingering injuries, concrete dust inhalation, and suicide.
Notes of Interest
Walter Cronkite, a young and unknown reporter at that time, was one of the first among hundreds of press members who covered the story. In his later years when asked about the tragedy, he stated that the New London School explosion was the worst non-war disaster that he ever witnessed.
Another significant name attached to the catastrophe was, Adolph Hitler. The German dictator wired a letter of condolence to the United States offering his sympathies.
In the years following the accident laws were passed requiring an odor to be added to natural gas so that in cases of leaks such as occurred at the New London School, the gas could be detected. So today, whenever you smell that classic, rotten egg scent of escaping gas, you know that it is an added odor to help identify the odorless natural gas. This is an act, and a law, that has stemmed from the lost lives of those on that day in March 18, 1937.
The New London School explosion still stands as the worst school disaster in the history of the United States. What information I have given here is a very basic summation of the event accompanied by a few notes of interest related to the accident. My intention for this article is not to provide a detailed account of the disaster, or to attempt to tell the story, but rather to be a memorial to those who lost their lives or whose lives were affected on that terrible day. For the readers benefit I have supplied some photographs, a video, and some links that will provide you with all the particulars of the story, and I truly hope that you do take the time to learn what happened on that terrible day. If you care to examine anything at all that I have added to this article I would suggest that you watch the attached video. It is approximately ten minutes long, but it is very informative, and gives some very heart felt interviews.
Why was I not aware of this?
Prompted by a small note in my family genealogy I had discovered an event that had been world wide news. Needless to say, I spent the next several hours researching websites, watching videos, and making phone calls. I was completely amazed, but most of my amazement came not from the enormity of the story, but by the fact that I had not known about the event. How could it be possible that I had never heard of this catastrophe? Especially since I had family members who died in the accident.
I made a phone call to my Aunt, Joyce (Barrett) Andes, who was a first cousin to Pauline and Donald Barrett who died in the explosion. I thought surely she would know about the accident and be able to tell me about it, but to my surprise she had never heard of it either. She and I were both perplexed and even a little upset that the details of a tragedy this big had never been passed down to us. But more than that, I was becoming a little angry that from all appearances, not only had the family forgotten, but most of the country had as well.
Why has this tragedy escaped our memories?
Considering that the New London School explosion still stands as the worst school disaster in US history, I have questioned why I had never heard of it. Why had none of my immediate family members ever heard of It? Why is it that not one single person that I have mentioned it to has ever heard of the event?
I wondered if it had been forgotten due to a lack of media attention. In today's society we are inundated with news the moment that it takes place, and we are fed a steady stream of updated details 24/7. Due to media coverage we are all familiar with the tragedies that have taken place in schools across the country in the last couple of decades. We are aware of the sad events that occurred at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook. The total number of people lost in those events is 70; less than a quarter of the amount of souls that were lost at New London. I am in no way trying to diminish the tragedy's that took place at those schools, I am only questioning why they are so well known whereas New London has been forgotten by all except the locals in the area. So, was it a lack of media reporting taking place in the 1930s? I can answer my own question; No!
During my research I discovered that the New London School explosion had been reported not just across the US, but across the entire globe. Newspapers around the world told of the horrific event, and leaders from several nations, including Hitler, sent their deepest sympathy to our mourning nation.
Okay, so the forgotten tragedy was not due to poor media coverage. I pondered other reasons why it had been erased from memory. Maybe it was simply because of the amount of time that had elapsed since the accident. After all, at the time I had discovered the record, 74 years had passed.The explosion had been the worst disaster in US history, but it had happened a very long time ago. Could this be the reason it has been forgotten? Again, I will answer my own question. No!
Growing up in the United States of America, there is a famous motto that we all learned as children. It is a motto that reminds us of an event that happened on March 6, 1836; 177 years ago.
"Remember The Alamo"
The New London School explosion occurred 76 years ago. The battle at the Alamo took place 101 years prior. 257 souls were lost in that battle; 39 fewer than was lost at New London School, and none of the victims at the Alamo were children. Once again I want to emphasize that it is not my intention to diminish the memory of those brave men that gave their lives at the Alamo, or of those innocent children and teachers that lost their lives in those senseless school shootings. I pray that we always remember "The Alamo" and that we never forget those poor victims at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook. What it is my intention to do is to bring remembrance back to those men, women, and children who lost their lives because of that terrible day of March 18, 1937.
As time has gone by and I have continued to dig deeper into the history of the event, I believe I have discovered the reason that the story has faded from our memories. Of course there are some underlying reasons for the fading of the story; first there were the ongoing exploits of one, Amelia Earhart, the female pilot who had captured the attention of the world. There was also the Hindenburg disaster, and then there was the ongoing threat of Hitler's Nazi Germany and the fear of another world war. As I mentioned earlier, there had been extensive coverage of the New London School explosion, so it wasn't as if the world had no knowledge of the event, and the other events taking place around the globe were indeed noteworthy enough to capture anyone's attention. But there is one more reason I have discovered; sorrow!
Through the course of books that I have read and articles that I researched I have come across one common thread involving survivors, family members, and rescuers; the inability to talk about, think about, or deal with the accident.
My Aunt Joyce called me after successfully contacting a couple of family members who had been connected to the event. She said that every one of them had the same response when she asked them about about the accident; they all said that while growing up, any time the New London School explosion was mentioned, the adults refused to talk about it. One of the family members was a younger sibling of Pauline and Donald, and he stated that even he hardly knew anything about the event because his parents never spoke of it his entire life.
This response that came through my family parallels the accounts of interviews with other family members of the event through their families or witnesses. The media was reporting facts and statistics about the accident, but they were getting no personal interviews with the kin of the victims. Families were so severely traumatized that it was intolerable for them to face the reality of what they had lost and what they had experienced. I have read accounts of parents who completely went mad, and some who even committed suicide. Those who survived the wave of insanity and the lure of darkness fell into such a state of unbearable sorrow that the only way they could survive was to withdraw into themselves so that they could escape pain.
Trying to imagine the grief that the survivors must have endured reminded me of the emotional state of my Uncle Bobby. Uncle Bobby served two terms in Vietnam. He was shot once, and on another occasion stepped on a land-mine which nearly killed him. When he was discharged he moved away and hardly spoke to any of us for what seemed like twenty years. As time has gone by and he has opened up, I have discovered that it was not his injuries that affected his mind; It was what he saw while he was there. In the modern world doctors have diagnosed this as "PTSD" (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). PTSD is a common condition suffered by many wartime veterans brought on by being introduced to experiences that the human mind refuses to accept. For the majority of people suffering this affliction the only way they can survive is to erase all the dark memories from their minds. The problem with this approach is that without proper help most of the sufferers not only wipe out the bad, but they also forget much of the good from the past. They withdraw into lonely solitude, and depression.
Honoring Their Memory
The New London School explosion of March 18, 1937, has been largely forgotten, and I believe I can understand why. I can't blame those family's, survivors, and rescuers, who for self preservation, or just because it hurt too damned much to think about it, erased that day from their conscience. I cannot imagine the emotional pain and torment that they must have suffered. What I want to do now is Remember! It has been a couple of generations since the explosion. Only a handful still survive who were there on that fateful day. Time has taken its toll and eased the pain. It is time now for people like myself, descendents, family members, locals in Texas, and writers such as, David M, Brown, Michael Wereschagin, and Ron Rozelle, to honor those who were lost in the explosion. We need to honor them by remembering them. It has been my purpose here to bring to your attention the memory of the souls that were lost on that day. Remember the survivors. Remember the rescuers. Remember the parents and teachers that were lost. Remember those 272 children whose young lives were ended in that tragic accident. I have made it my duty, that as long as I live, I will make sure that they are never forgotten. I will not forget!
If you are ever in Texas and you ask for the most popular tourist attraction in the entire state, you will be directed to The Alamo. I'm sure if you made your way there you would find plenty of souvenirs with the slogan, "Remember the Alamo!" So, if ever you do find your self there, ask someone if they remember, "The New London School Explosion?" They will probably be Texas natives and so will possibly remember. But if not, you will!.
Pauline and Donald Barrett
Rest in Peace
In memory of my cousins, Pauline and Donald Barrett.
And to the children and adults who perished on March 18, 1937,
Below is a link to a poem written by my daughter, Erika Barrett, in memory to the London School Explosion.
- 3:17 P.M.
In memory of the lives lost on March 18, 1937 due to the tragic school explosion. A forgotten time in history.