New London School explosion

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New London School explosion
1937 newsreel
Time 3:05 – 3:20 PM Central Time
Date March 18, 1937 (1937-03-18)
Location New London, Texas
Deaths 295+
Injuries 300+

The New London School explosion occurred on March 18, 1937, when a natural gas leak caused an explosion, destroying the London School of New London, Texas,[1] a community in Rusk County previously known as "London". The disaster killed more than 295 students and teachers, making it the deadliest school disaster in American history. As of 2014, the event is the third deadliest disaster in the history of Texas, after the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, and the 1947 Texas City Disaster.

New London School Explosion News

Background[edit]

In the mid-1930s, the Great Depression was in full swing, but the London school district was one of the richest in America. A 1930 oil find in Rusk County had boosted the local economy, and educational spending grew with it. The London School, a large structure of steel and concrete, was constructed in 1932 at a cost of $1 million (approx $15.75 million in 2009 dollars). The London Wildcats (a play on the term "wildcatter", for an oil prospector) played football in the first stadium in the state to have electric lights.

London School before the explosion

The school was built on sloping ground, and a large dead-air space was contained beneath the structure. The school board had overridden the original architect's plans for a boiler and steam distribution system, instead opting to install 72 gas heaters throughout the building.[2]

Early in 1937, the school board canceled their natural gas contract and had plumbers install a tap into Parade Gasoline Company's residue gas line in order to save money. This practice, while not explicitly authorized by local oil companies, was widespread in the area. The natural gas extracted with the oil was seen as a waste product and was flared off. As there was no value to the natural gas, the oil companies turned a blind eye. This "raw" or "wet" gas varied in quality from day to day, even from hour to hour.[3]

Untreated natural gas is both odorless and colorless, so leaks are difficult to detect and may go unnoticed. Gas had been leaking from the residue line tap, and built up inside an enclosed crawlspace that ran the entire 253-foot (77 m) length of the building's facade. Students had been complaining of headaches for some time, but little attention had been paid to it.[4]

March 18 was a Thursday. Friday's classes had been canceled to allow for students to participate in the neighboring city of Henderson's Interscholastic Meet, a scholastic and athletic competition. Following the school's normal schedule, first through fourth grade students had been let out early. A PTA meeting was being held in the gymnasium, a separate structure roughly 100 feet (30 m) from the main building.

Explosion[edit]

At some time between 3:05 and 3:20PM Central (local) time, Lemmie R. Butler (an "instructor of manual training") turned on an electric sander. It is believed that the sander's switch caused a spark that ignited the gas-air mixture.


Reports from witnesses state that the walls of the school bulged, the roof lifted from the building, and then crashed back down and the main wing of the structure collapsed. The force of the explosion was so great that a two-ton concrete block was thrown clear of the building and crushed a 1936 Chevrolet parked nearby.[5] Approximately 600 students and 40 teachers were in the building at the time.

Reaction[edit]

The explosion was its own alarm, heard for miles. The most immediate response was from parents at the PTA meeting. Within minutes, area residents started to arrive and began digging through the rubble, many with their bare hands. Roughnecks from the oil fields were released from their jobs, and brought with them cutting torches and heavy equipment needed to clear the concrete and steel.

London School bus driver Lonnie Barber was transporting elementary students to their homes, and was in sight of the school as it exploded. Barber continued his two hour route, returning children to their parents before rushing back to the school to look for his four children. His son Arden died, but the others were not seriously injured.[6] Barber retired the next year.

Aid poured in from outside the area. Governor James Allred dispatched Texas Rangers, highway patrol, and the Texas National Guard. Thirty doctors, 100 nurses, and 25 embalmers arrived from Dallas. Airmen from Barksdale Field, deputy sheriffs, and even Boy Scouts took part in the rescue and recovery.

Of the more than 600 people in the school, only about 130 escaped without serious injury. Estimates of the number dead vary from 296 to 319, but that number could be much higher, as many of the residents of New London at the time were transient oilfield workers, and there is no way to determine for certain how many of these roughnecks collected the bodies of their children in the days following the disaster and returned them to their respective homes for burial. Most of the bodies were either burned beyond recognition, or blown to pieces. One mother had a heart attack and died when she found out that her daughter died, with only part of her face, her chin and a couple of bones recovered. Another boy was identified by the presence of the pull string from his favorite top in his jeans pocket.

Rescuers worked through night and rain, and 17 hours later, the entire site had been cleared. Buildings in the neighboring communities of Henderson, Overton, Kilgore and as far away as Tyler and Longview were converted into makeshift morgues to house the enormous number of bodies, and everything from family cars to delivery trucks served as hearses and ambulances. A new hospital, Mother Frances Hospital in nearby Tyler, was scheduled to open the next day, but the dedication was canceled and the hospital opened immediately.[7]

Reporters who arrived in the city found themselves swept up in the rescue effort. Former Dallas Times Herald executive editor Felix McKnight, then a young AP reporter, recalled, "We identified ourselves and were immediately told that helpers were needed far more than reporters." Walter Cronkite also found himself in New London, on one of his first assignments for United Press. Although Cronkite went on to cover World War II and the Nuremberg trials, he was quoted as saying decades later, "I did nothing in my studies nor in my life to prepare me for a story of the magnitude of that New London tragedy, nor has any story since that awful day equaled it."[8]

Not all of the buildings on the 10-acre (40,000 m2) campus were destroyed. One of the surviving buildings, the gymnasium, was quickly converted into multiple classrooms. Inside new tents and the modified buildings, classes resumed 10 days later.

The majority of the victims of the explosion are buried at Pleasant Hill Cemetery, near New London.

Adolf Hitler, who was the German Chancellor at the time, paid his respects in the form of a telegram, a copy of which is on display at the London Museum.[9][10]

Aftermath[edit]

Experts from the United States Bureau of Mines concluded that the connection to the residue gas line was faulty. The connection had allowed gas to leak into the school, and since natural gas is invisible and is odorless, the leak was unnoticed. To reduce the damage of future leaks, the Texas Legislature began mandating within weeks of the explosion that thiols (mercaptans) be added to natural gas.[1] The strong odor of many thiols makes leaks quickly detectable. The practice quickly spread worldwide.

Shortly after the disaster, the Texas Legislature met in emergency session and enacted the Engineering Registration Act (now rewritten as the Texas Engineering Practice Act). Public pressure was on the government to regulate the practice of engineering due to the faulty installation of the natural gas connection; Carolyn Jones, a nine year old survivor, spoke to the Texas Legislature about the importance of safety in schools.[11] The use of the title "engineer" in Texas remains legally restricted to those who have been professionally certified by the state to practice engineering.[11]

A lawsuit was brought against the school district and the Parade Gasoline Company, but the court ruled that neither could be held responsible. Superintendent W.C. Shaw was forced to resign amid talk of a lynching. Shaw lost a son in the explosion.

A new school was completed in 1939 on the property, directly behind the location of the destroyed building. The school remained known as the London School until 1965 when London ISD consolidated with Gaston ISD, the name was changed to West Rusk High School, and the mascot was changed to the Raiders.

Remembrance[edit]

The top of the London School cenotaph by sculptor Matchett Herring Coe

A large granite cenotaph on the median of Texas State Highway 42 across from the school site, erected in 1939, commemorates the disaster.

Over the years, the New London School explosion received relatively little attention given the magnitude of the event. Explanations for this are speculative, but most center around residents' unwillingness to discuss the tragedy. L.V. Barber said of his father Lonnie, "I can remember newspaper people coming around every now and then, asking him questions about that day, but he never had much to say." Nevertheless, in recent years, as the disaster has gained historical perspective, it has been increasingly treated by researchers and journalists.

In 1973, Texas filmmaker Michael Brown produced a half hour documentary on the explosion, thought to be the first ever made on the subject, beyond filmed news coverage immediately after the blast in 1937. Called New London: The Day the Clock Stood Still, the film featured survivors of the blast and their recollections of that day.

The 50th anniversary of the event, in 1987, was commemorated in part by the release of a documentary, "The Day A Generation Died," written, produced, and directed by Jerry Gumbert.[12]

In 1998, The London Museum and Tea House, across the highway from the school site, opened. Its first curator Mollie Ward, was an explosion survivor.

In 2008, some of the last living survivors of the explosion shared their personal stories of their experience with documentary filmmaker and East Texas native, Kristin Beauchamp. The feature length documentary, titled "When Even Angels Wept," was released in 2009 and was a first-hand account of the disaster. It is told almost exclusively by survivors and eyewitnesses. They share what they experienced on the afternoon leading up to the blast to what it was like to spend days searching East Texas towns, hospitals and morgues for missing loved ones.

A one act play about the event, written by Dr. Bobby H. Johnson, a journalist and Professor Emeritus of History at Stephen F. Austin State University, called A Texas Tragedy,[13] has been performed by students at Huntington High School in Huntington, Texas and in other regional venues.

In March 2012, survivors and others gathered together at the town's rebuilt school in remembrance of the 75th anniversary of the disaster.[14]

In 2012, Texas filmmaker Michael Brown began work on a new documentary about the East Texas Oil field discovery and its eventual role in the New London School disaster. The film, scheduled for completion by spring of 2013 and carrying a working title of Shadow Across The Path, features excerpts from an hour-long interview that Brown conducted with Walter Cronkite in his New York office at CBS. The interview has never been seen or published. The New London school explosion was then-20-year-old Cronkite's first national story. The new work will also feature recent interviews with blast survivors.

List of known deaths[edit]

Abercrombie, Boyd Adams, Evelyn Allman, Almita Fae Anderson, Allene Myrtle Anderson, Lillian Laverne Apple, Betty Ruth Arnold, Wayne S.
Barber, Ollie B. Barber, Arden Leon Barrett, Donald Barrett, Edward Barrett, Pauline Barton, Laverne T. Barton, Murvin
Baucum, Margaret Louise Bell, Miss Laura Bennett, Mary Francis Benson, Betty Lou Bishop, Nellene Blackerby, John Blackford, Neal
Blanton, Virginia Rose Bonner, George A. Bonner, Oneta Bowlin, Byron Braden, Sybil Dell Brown, Bobbie Lorene Brown, Elaine
Bunting, Naomi Butler, L. R. Buzbee, John Robert Bynum, Unknown Byrom, Owen Carney, Mary Prescilla Carr, Chloe Ann
Cuvelier, Jacqueline Childress, William Polk Choate, Murray Dixon Clair, Mildred Louise Clark, Mary Lynn Clover, Byron Coker, Forest
Cole, Helen Colins, Charles Rusk Jr. Corrie, Kenneth Cox, Perry Lee Crim, Annie Bell Crumbley, Jimmie Cummins, Marcella
Curry, Zana Jo Damuth, Jane Davidson, Annie Laurie Davidson, Ardyth Davidson, Helen Davidson, Joe Wheeler Davis June
Davis, Kenneth Wayne Dearing, Dorothy Ann Dial, Travis Dickerson, Wanda Joyce Dorsey, Alice Dorsey, Ethel Drake, Winifred Melvine
Duncan, James Alfred Duncan, Vera Virginia (Sue) Eakes, Forest Eugene Ellison, Holly Jo Elrod, Edwin Zone Elrod, Juanita Emberling, George
Emberling, Wanda Etheredge, Doris N. Fealy, James P. Fentress, Jack Ford, Jack Arnold Ford, Mary Elizabeth Forman, Mary Ellen
Francis, Emaloyd Francis, Margine Freeman, Myrtle Frey, Carl H. Jr. Gandy, Martha Jean Gauthreaux, Eddie Herman Gerdes, Allen T.
Gerdes, Alvin H. Gibson, Marcelyn, Carol Gipson, G. W. Goff, R. A. Jr. Gordon, Betty Kathryn Gordon, Joe C. Greer, Paul
Grigg, Edwin Guinn, Tom Howard Gunn, H. D. Hale, Norris Thurston Hall, Irene Hall, Oscar G. Jr. Hamilton, Carl Jr.
Hankins, Francis Hanna, Lorene Hardy, Leneta Fae Hargis, Martha Jane Harrelson, Coy Dee Harrelson, Helen Louise Harris, James
Hasbrook, Charles Hathaway, Y. Jackolene Henson, Graham K. Herrington, Betty Jo Herrington, Mary Ellen Herron, Juanita Hodges, Betty Jo
Hodges, Irma Elizabeth Hodges, Betty Jo Hogue, Margretta Holland, Bessie Estelle Holleyman, Betty Catherine Holt, Jessie Elinor Hooten, Mary Frances
Houser, Laura Lee Houser, Imogene Houser, Martha Ellen Hudson, Elisha M. Hudson, Hurbert Hughes, Melba Hunt, Charles Porter
Hunt, Ruby Frances Jacobs, Maxine Johnson, Kenneth Jolly, Geneva Lucille Jones, Fidelia Jones, Goodall Jones, Helen C.
Kelly Maudine Ketchum, William Kilgore, Cloudell King, Mary Lois Knight, Jaqueline Knipe, Earnest Ray Knotts, Rachel Mae
Krauss, Bobby Lee Lambert, Robert Austin Latham Homer Latham, W. D. Lechtenberg, Anna May Lechtenberg, Helen Lee, Florence Ruby
Lee, Laura Lehew, Mary Ellen Lloyd, Arzell Lloyd, Mary Emily Loe, Virginia Lowe, Helen Charlotte Lumpkin, John
Maddry, J. E. Maddry, Mazine Manch, Doris Martin, Louise Maxwell, Blondell Maxwell, Charles Henry Maxwell, Louise
Mayhew, Evelyn McChesny, Donald Robert McClure, Vincent Howard McCune, Lanny McGovney, Jack McGovney, James McLawchlin, W. C.
McQuaid, Shirley Lataine Meadow, Floyd Jr. Melton, Doris Kay Middleton, Arlis Ray Miller, Carroll Evaughn Miller, Sebe Mills, Sarah Jane
Milstead, Annie Marie Monday, Alma Moore, Dessie Lometer Morfield, Billie J. Mote, Marion Mote, Patty Ann Myers, Margie Louise
Myers, Shirley Elizabeth Nail, John Worthley Neal, Mrs. Mary Ethel Nelson, Mrs. J.D. Netherton, Aubry, Lee Newell, Orrin, Neal Newham, Jackie
Norton, Betty Mozell Norton, Vesta Allen O'Neal, Charles O'Neal, Raymond B. Patterson, Marie Payne, Joyce Payne, Lewis M.
Peace, Edna Ruby Person, Forest Lavon Petty, James Ray Phillips, James Henry Phillips, Twillia Ruth Phillips, Virgil B. Pierson, Hazel Marie
Pinkerton, Harvey Platt, Ola Christene Powell, Edna E. Powell, Eloise Phillips, Roseann Pride, Garland Propes, J. H.
Purcell, Annie Ragsdale, Gabe E. Rainwater, Aubrey Rainwater, Evelyn Rainwater, Helen Ray, Delores Reames, Curtis Burton
Reed, Ruby E. Rhodes, James Basel Richardson, Dorothy Rider, Betty Jane Rider, Charles Oliver Roberts, Billy Roberts, R. B.
Roberts, Holten Dean Roberts, Norma Wayne Roberts, Ruth Rogers, Annie Maxwell Rogers, Thomas Blanton Rowell, Louise Rucker, Ester Fay
Sallee, Robert Henry Salyer, Robert Basil Scott, David Willard Scott, Earl Jefferson Sevens, Maudine Shaw, Clifton Sambo Shaw, Dorothy Oleta
Shaw, Marvin Shaw, Sammie Shoemaker, Robert W. Shoemate, Sammie Smith, Abner Smith, Bobbie Jean Smith, Iva Jo
Smith, Mattie Mae Smith, Willien Ruth Smith, Ross Jr. Smoot, Anna Maude Smoot, Helen Sowell, William Edward Staggs, Carl
Starks, Marshall Stearnes, Geraldine Steele, Henry Lee Stephens, Philo Stone, Howard Stubblefield, A. W. Sutherlin, Glendell
Swift, Lawrence Tate, W. H. Tatum, J. R. Jr. Taylor, Charles Ray Thiebaud, Marjorie Thompson, Milder Thompson, Walter
Tipp, Billie Travis, Unknown Travis, Unknown Van Haverbeke, Rose Vines, Mary E. Waggoner, Anna Belle Walker, Herman L.
Walker, Mary Inez Walker, Moreene Waller, Louis Warren, Florine Watkins, Annie Louise Watson, Katie Mae Webb, Mary Jo
Wells, Doris White, Dorothy Joyce Williams, Aubry Williams, Doris Dean Williams, Erma Jean Willis, Lucille Willis, Mary Lou
Womack, Bernice Wood, Glenn Wooley, Malcolm Wortham, S. Jack Wyche, Doris York, Dale May Young, Mozell

(Information obtained from New London School Museum)

See also[edit]

References[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 32°14′21″N 94°56′29″W / 32.23917°N 94.94139°W / 32.23917; -94.94139