New London School Disaster
“Someday soon ... there will be no one alive who has ever known me. That's when I will be truly dead - when I exist in no one's memory." - Irvin D. Yalom
While most of the country in 1937 was still mired in the Great Depression, East Texas was feeling all of the benefits of an oil boom. People from around the country were moving here to take jobs at the oil fields, and there were plenty available. After oil was discovered in Kilgore, the population quickly swelled from about 800 people to over 10,000. People lived in tents, in cars and in shacks made from discarded cardboard and pallets. Buildings in downtown Kilgore, including the main bank building, were being razed in order to erect oil derricks. Ultimately, over 1,200 crowded derricks stood within the city limits.
Thanks to revenues from its own interests in the oil wells, nearby New London had developed a 21-acre school campus that included the elementary school, a gymnasium and a lighted football field. Just completed was a modern, state-of-the-art combined junior/senior high school. The new two-story school was a shining example of educational technology and opportunity. It contained a fully-equipped chemistry lab, an auditorium with a balcony and an industrial arts workshop.
To heat the building, the school district had tapped into the oil fields “green” gas instead of buying natural gas from the local utility company. Acquiring the waste gas in this way was a common practice for the area at the time. The free gas was colorless, odorless and powered the boilers that heated the school.
On the afternoon of March 18, 1937, just before school was to let out, a shop teacher started up one of the machines. An electrical spark ignited a mass of the gas that had accumulated in the large, nearly sealed crawl space under the school building. Eyewitnesses said the building looked as if it lifted into the air and then smashed to the ground. The massive blast, which was heard four miles away, blew the concrete foundation up through the two stories of the building, which settled into a pile of concrete, steel and plaster rubble. Entwined in the rubble were hundreds of school kids, teachers and visitors to the school that day.
The event at New London is still the worst school disaster in American history. The final dead count stands at 294; 270 of those were students in grades five through eleven.
Mere minutes following the explosion, people rushed to the grim site to begin searching bare handed through the rubble trying to recover victims. Frantic parents flocked to the school, searching for news of their children. As word spread, the roads leading to New London were jammed with people trying to get to the site.
At first, debris was removed in peach baskets, but soon after, oilfield workers brought heavy machinery to the site. Texas Governor James Allred dispatched Texas Rangers and Highway Patrol officers to the area, and they, along with units from the National Guard, brought a sense of order to the confusion at the ever-crowding site.
Another brand new building in nearby Tyler had just opened its doors the day before and was planning an opening celebration. Mother Frances Hospital canceled those plans and began taking in victims from the explosion. Doctors, nurses and embalmers from Dallas soon arrived to join the grim work at hand. Many accounts of the day of the people working at the site recall that most everyone searched in silence; few words spoken. Within the main blast area, most of the sad recovery included mangled bodies, body parts and “other bits.”
When night fell, work continued under a light rain and floodlights. Most buildings in the area had been made into a make-shift morgue or field hospital. Walter Cronkite was a young reporter for UPI at the time. He spent four days at the site filing stories, which were being broadcast around the world. He said this about the scene, "Grief was everywhere. Almost everyone you ran into had lost a member of his family. Yet they went about doing everything they could to help each other. The men were digging out the bodies and removing the rubble while the women were helping the injured and supplying coffee and meals for the workers."
The initial search and cleanup at the site was finished in 17 hours, but the search for the many parents looking for their children lasted days. Identification was excruciatingly difficult. In many cases, victims were identified by a shoe they wore, a keepsake pin or personalized pocket knife.
In the aftermath of the explosion, moms and dads were frantically trying to find their children, hopefully in one of the hospitals nearby. If they had no luck there, they searched the make-shift morgues. Unfortunately, most of the remains of the victims were indescribable and unidentifiable. One of the stories often told at the museum is a typical description of how mothers and fathers identified their children at the morgues.
The morning of the explosion, one mom was finishing up a shirt she was making for her son. He saw it and wanted to wear it that day, but she said no. It wasn’t finished, and she hadn’t sewn on the buttons. He convinced her to let him wear it without any buttons. Apparently, there had been another boy who also wore a shirt made of the same material. This mom felt along the seams and cuffs of the shirt and knew it was her son, because there were no buttons.
They drove from one hospital to another hoping to find living children and from one morgue to the other for their dead. Once the funerals began, they were held around the clock. Pall bearers went from one service to the next, and choir members raced from one funeral to the other to sing a hymn for the families.
The incident was an international story. School children from as far away as Japan and Brazil mailed hand-written cards and letters to New London. Telegrams offering condolences were received from dignitaries and national and international heads of state. Others sent monetary donations at what level they could afford.
Experts from the U.S. Bureau of Mines were sent to the site, where they determined that the connection to the tapped in gas line was faulty. Lawsuits were filed against the school district and the gas company that supplied the tapped line, but the court found that neither could be held responsible. The school superintendent, W. L. Shaw was forced to resign. (His son was killed in the explosion.)
Work on a new school began almost immediately. Students attended classes in make shift rooms in other buildings on the campus. The new school opened in 1939 and soon the first graduating class received their diplomas in a new auditorium. After that, practically no one talked about the incident for over 40 years. For most who had survived, who had lost children and who had searched the site, it was too painful. But in 1977, searchers and families of those lost finally held a reunion in New London. Although still very painful, they were finally talking about their experiences and how March 18, 1937 affected their lives since. Even some wrongly held guilt for some survivors was assuaged.
In one classroom, a boy wanted to sit by his girlfriend for the few final moments of class. He asked another girl to swap seats with him, which she did. That girl was killed in the explosion; he survived. For forty years the boy carried the guilt he felt for that girl’s death. At the first reunion he mustered the courage to speak to the girl’s brother, telling him how he had switched seats and how he had carried that with him for so long. The brother told him to release that guilt. He had done nothing to cause his sister’s death.
As a result of the New London School Disaster, the 45th Texas Legislature passed House Bill 1017 that was signed by Governor James Allred in 1937. The bill gave the Texas Railroad Commission the authority to adopt rules pertaining to the odorization of natural gas. In late July 1937, the Commission began enforcing the rules it adopted.
Today, injecting natural gas with an odor or “stench” is an international practice.
Special thanks to J. M. Jones and Patsy Williams, at the New London Museum. Ms. Williams’ father was one of the men who worked for hours on the rubble pile searching for victims and survivors of the explosion. She is a thorough and gracious tour guide at the museum.