REMEMBERING A SCHOOL DISASTER

My mother did not usually share horrible stories, but there was one that she talked about often––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,

East Texas Oilfield
Wikipedia

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, had become the most prolific oil reservoir in the contiguous forty-eight states. The town of New London sat in the heart of this

$1 million New London School
Wikipedia

140,000-acre oil field and all that wealth allowed its school to construct in 1932 a $1 million steel and concrete building. The football team proudly called itself 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 considered a waste product, and it was burned or “flared off.” It became a common practice in nearby 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 waste product varied widely, and it was odorless and colorless.

No one at the school realized that gas had been leaking from a faulty connection and collecting in a 253-foot long crawlspace beneath the building. Student complaints of headaches had been ignored.

Fortunately, because the school had planned to take part in an Interscholastic meet in nearby Henderson, the elementary school students had been sent home early. 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 a spark that ignited the gas. The explosion could be 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 removed. Governor James Allred sent Texas Rangers, the highway patrol, and Texas National Guard. A hospital in nearby Tyler, 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 exact number has never been determined because many of the students were in families of temporary oilfield workers who may have collected their children’s bodies and taken them to their hometowns for burial. Most of the dead 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 International 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 thiols (originally ethanethiol), a substance with a strong-smelling odor, be mixed with the odorless natural gas to create the telltale smell as a warning of danger. The legislature also enacted what is known today as the Texas Engineering Practice Act, which requires that only licensed engineers can install natural gas connections.

Although more than seventy lawsuits were filed against the school district and the gasoline company, 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, resigned as rumors spread that he would be lynched.

Classes resumed in ten days in tents and makeshift buildings. Thirty surviving seniors graduated that year. The following year, the town built a new school behind the site of the destroyed building, and a Texas pink granite cenotaph commemorating the disaster commands a site in front of the new school. Today, the district has consolidated as the West Rusk High School.

Memorial Cenotaph stands before the West Rusk High School.
Courtesy Bill O’Neal, photographer/historian