My mother did not usually share horrible stories, but she often talked about the New London School explosion that occurred on March 18, 1937. As I read more about that day, I realized that despite it being classified as the third deadliest disaster in Texas, after the 1900 Galveston Hurricane and the 1947 Texas City Disaster, it has never received the attention it deserves.
The Great Depression was in full swing, but the East Texas oilfield, discovered on October 5, 1930, was and still is the largest and most prolific oil reservoir in the contiguous forty-eight states. New London,
located in the heart of this 140,000-acre field, was flush with money, and had celebrated the construction in 1932 of its $1 million steel and concrete school. The football team was proudly called the London Wildcats (for the oil prospector know as a “wildcatter”). Instead of using the architect’s plan for a boiler and steam distribution system, the school board elected to install seventy-two gas heaters throughout the building.
On January 18, 1937, the school board decided to save approximately $300 a month on its natural gas contract by tapping into a residue gas line. Natural gas at that time was seen as a waste product of oil, and it was burned or “flared off.” It was a common practice in the oilfield towns for homes, businesses, and churches to tap into the “raw” gas lines to save the cost of regular gas delivery. The quality of the “raw” gas varied sometimes even from hour to hour, and it was odorless and colorless. No one was aware that gas had been leaking from a faulty connection at the school and collecting under the building in a 253-foot long crawlspace. Student complaints of headaches had been ignored. Parents were holding a PTA meeting in a building about 100 feet from the main structure.
Between 3:05 and 3:20 PM, an instructor of manual training began operating an electric sander. It is believed the sander’s switch caused the spark that ignited the gas. The explosion was heard for miles. Witnesses reported that the walls of the school bulged, the roof lifted up and then crashed down, collapsing the main wing of the building and burying the victims in a mass of brick, steel, and concrete. A two-ton concrete block was thrown into a nearby car.
News spread over telephone and Western Union lines. Parents and residents of the town used their bare hands to claw through the rubble, and oilfield workers with cutting torches and heavy-duty equipment worked feverishly throughout the night in a steady rain. Within seventeen hours, all the victims were found and the debris was removed. Governor James Allred sent Texas Rangers, the highway patrol, and Texas National Guard. A hospital in nearby Tyler that was scheduled to open the following day, began treating the survivors. Doctors, nurses, and embalmers hurried to the scene; Boy Scouts and airmen from a nearby airfield rushed to help.
Numbers vary from 500 to 600 people in the school; about 130 escaped serious injury. Approximately 298 to 319 died, but the number was never clearly determined because many of the students were in families of itinerant oilfield workers who may have collected their children’s bodies and taken them to their
hometowns for burial. Most of the bodies were burned beyond recognition, or blown to pieces.
Assistance and condolences came from all over the world, including from the German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, who sent a telegram paying his respects. A copy is on display at the London Museum.
Among the throng of reporters that descended on the scene was twenty-year-old Walter Cronkite who was sent by United Press on his first major disaster assignment. In later years, after having covered World War II and the Nuremberg trials, Cronkite said “I did nothing in my studies nor in my life to prepare me for the story of the magnitude of that New London tragedy, nor has any story since that awful day equaled it.”
The aftermath of the tragedy resulted in the Texas Legislature passing a law, which quickly spread worldwide, requiring that malodorants, strong-smelling odors, be mixed with gas creating the telltale odor as a warning of danger. The legislature also enacted what is known today as the Texas Engineering Practice Act, which means that only licensed engineers can install natural gas connections.
Although more than seventy lawsuits against the school district and the gasoline company were filed, only a few came to trial, and they were dismissed for lack of evidence. No school officials were found to be liable. The superintendent of schools, who lost one of his own children in the explosion, was forced to resign as rumors spread that he would be lynched.
Classes resumed in ten days in tents and makeshift buildings, and the thirty surviving seniors graduated that year. In 1939 a new school was completed behind the site of the destroyed building, and a Texas
pink granite cenotaph commemorating the disaster was erected in front of the new school.