- Politics and Social Issues
The 1937 New London School Explosion-America's Worst School Disaster
A Dark Day in Texas
The great State of Texas is synonymous with excess. The men wear big hats and carry big guns; the ladies have big hair and extravagant clothing. Following this tradition, the great oil boom of the early thirties gave Texas the ability to withstand the Great Depression. The oil many oil wells in New London Texas would top 170 million barrels in 1937. A few towns, areas and people were affected but for the most part Texans were enjoying life.That was about to end in a most horrific manner.
The New London School provided education for children in grades five through eleven (there was no 12th grade but students could return for more education). It was a new and modern school, costing a million dollars in a time where that was a tremendous amount of money. The new building was designed to use oil, costing between $250-300 a year to heat the school. But the nearby oil derricks produced a by product called waste, or raw, gas which was useless. The heat factor was low and it had no market value. So when people and business tapped into the lines, the company really didn’t care and looked the other way. One of these legal poachers was the New London School.
Like bureaucrats the world over, the school board wanted to save money by using the waste gas to heat the school for free rather than spend the funds for oil to heat the building. Their intentions were to be good stewards of the taxpayer monies but for weeks children and teachers alike complained about sickness, headaches and allergy symptoms. The gas lines were carefully checked for leaks but nothing was found to be amiss so a regular school schedule was maintained.
Then on Thursday, March 18, 1937, just before the dismissal bell rang, life literally ended for more than 300 children and teachers. It was a dark and tragic day for a small Texas town and the sorrow quickly spread throughout Texas and indeed across America. Yet, few people outside Texas now remember the event that forever changed a community, taking almost half of their children in one split second.
At 3:17 PM, the instructor of the shop class turned on a sander in the basement. He had no idea the crawl space below was filled with the odorless waste gas. A tiny spark from the sander set off an explosion underneath the school, flying along the 250 length of the basement feet and ripping the schoolhouse apart, instantly killing hundreds of children and injuring many more. The sound of the explosion was like a bomb, heard up to four miles away and sending a four thousand pound slab of concrete hurtling 200 feet through the air.
The tapped gas line had indeed been leaking and the attempt to save money and school expenses had ended up costing more than a few hundred dollars. It had cost taxpayers the most valuable thing they had, their children. More than a quarter of the town’s children were killed that day in one instant.
Later investigations showed the explosion had the same power as seventy pounds of dynamite for each square foot of floor space. There was no hope of escape as it all happened in the blink of an eye. The ones who survived did so because they were sheltered by items such as bookcase, outside running errands or in an area that miraculously suffered less impact. Others were flung out of the building and while injured, survived because of that violent eviction. All were covered with a grayish mixture of concrete dust, blood, dust and tears.
The Immediate Aftermath
Members of the PTA were meeting at the gymnasium which was not attached to the school building and rushed to the carnage. Dirt and dust clouds were swirling like thick fog yet frantic parents and rescuers tried to climb into the collapsed building to find children, carrying them out dead or alive.
News of the disaster was relayed over telephone and Western Union lines. Oil workers from the eleven oil rigs on the school property rushed to the scene to help with the emergency. Texas rangers and other police agencies came to help plow through mountains of stone, rocks and walls that had been blown apart by the explosion.
The Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Boy Scout troops, dozens of doctors and volunteers from many oil companies came to assist in the rescue and salvage effort. The International-Great Northern Railroad sent workers and twenty five embalmers arrived on the scene to care for the bodies while a local hospital cancelled dedication services to help the injured students and teachers.
When children were found alive but hurt, they were rushed to hospitals anywhere and everywhere within the district, some up to twenty miles away. This caused even more chaos due to parents not being able to locate their children and fearing them dead under that awful covering.
A local school bus driver had just left the area when he heard the burst of sound. Looking back, he knew something terrible had happened but remained focused on his job. He delivered panicked but uninjured elementary schoolchildren home (they were dismissed before the older classes). Then he rushed back to the scene because all four of his own children were in that school. His youngest son died while three others were seriously injured.
Five hundred and forty people were in the building, two hundred ninety eight of them died. Most were students but sixteen teachers died and eight visitors who were in the building at the time of the explosion. More people died later from injuries bringing the believed total to 311 deaths.
The exact total is unknown because an eyewitness who was a boy at the school states some bodies were never recovered and that some parents took their children away and never returned. That was an era when people came and went at will and many were temporarily in New London working the oil rigs. Some likely took their lost children to their hometown to bury them.
- 5th Grade -67 Children Killed
- 6th Grade-87 Children Killed
- 7th Grade-34 Children Killed
- 8th Grade-31 Children Killed
- 9th Grade-11 Children Killed
- 10th Grade- 16 Children Killed
- 11th Grade-23 Children Killed
- Teachers-16 Killed Killed
- Visitors and Workers-8 Killed
- Total 293, more would never be found or died later
How Could This Happen?
Untreated natural gas is odorless and colorless, undetectable. The headaches, nausea and other complaints the students and teachers had suffered for months was because of the gas that had built up underneath the building. One of the first things done in the mornings was to open windows for fresh air.
This disaster had only one benefit. A new law was passed in Texas which was quickly picked up by the other states, requiring gas to be treated so it is easily smelled by anyone. That is why it now has a sulfur (rotten egg) odor.
The normal cost to heat the school was about $250-300 a month. That was too high for the officials who decided to tap into the waste or raw gas lines to save money. It was a mistake that ultimately caused the explosion and taking many lives.
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Why Revisit This Tragedy?
I believe when we remember, we keep alive the memories of lost ones. In doing so we are intentional in planning so these things never happen again. It is important that we be proactive, not appalled at our lack of foresight.
I have chosen not to give details of the gruesome scene. The human body is not designed to withstand explosives. That is enough for anyone to know.