Tragedy in New London


The New London school before the explosion
(historical photo)
In 1937, the New London school district in Texas was one of the richest rural school districts in America due to income from the oil and natural gas fields surrounding the small town. Over 10,000 derricks surrounded the area; eleven of them operating on the school grounds itself. That income enabled the building of a beautiful, 2-story, modern, steel-framed building where kindergarten through 11th grade classes were held. Just before the 1st day of spring that year, the school would become the site of the most heart-wrenching school day in America’s history.

On March 18th, at 3:17pm,the older students were in their last class, minutes away from the last bell. The children in kindergarten through 4
th grade had already been dismissed for the day. The PTA was meeting in the gym as L. R. Butler, the instructor of manual training, turned on a sanding machine in the shop room under the building. Unfortunately, there had been a slow, but prolonged gas leak from a 2-inch pipe. At that time, no one had thought to add a noxious smell to gas to enable detection of it so even though it had accumulated in a large pocket, it had been undetected because it was colorless and odorless. When Mr. Butler turned on the switch, an electrical spark ignited the gas which had accumulated in an enclosed 253-foot long by 56-foot wide space beneath the basement floor.

Minutes after the explosion
(historical photo)
The explosion was so massive that it lifted the concrete floor and the entire building into the air. When it crashed back down, the walls collapsed and the roof fell in. Bricks, steel beams and huge pieces of concrete rained down on the students and adults trapped in the classrooms. So powerful was the explosion that it was heard over 4 miles away and it threw a 2-ton piece of concrete through the air for more than 200 feet where it demolished someone’s new Chevrolet.

Stunned parents at the PTA meeting ran
to the school building and began frantically digging through the massive mound of ruble screaming for their children buried underneath. As word of the disaster quickly spread, the town’s residents came running with shovels and rakes. Roughnecks from the oilfields rushed to the school with heavy-duty equipment. Police, including members of the Highway Patrol and Texas Rangers arrived and pitched in to help.
It began to rain as darkness set in, but floodlights were set up and the workers continued digging through the rubble looking for victims all night. There were a few miracles as a survivor would be dug out of the rubble, but mostly, the heart-breaking screams of anguished parents were heard over and over as workers pulled another lifeless body of a child from the debris and it was identified.

It took seventeen hours for all the victims to be recovered. Garages, churches and even the roller rink were all used as makeshift hospitals and morgues. Of the 500 students and 40 teachers, school employees and visitors in the building, 294 had died that day. Another 17 severely injured victims died in the days and weeks following the explosion bringing the total number to 311.
Killed in blast
Male
Female
Total
5th Grade
26
42
68
6th Grade
33
54
87
7th Grade
17
17
34
8th Grade
12
19
31
9th Grade
7
4
11
10th Grade
9
7
16
11th Grade
13
10
23
Teachers
3
13
16
Other
5
3
8
Totals
125
169
294
There were many horror stories. One family lost all three of their children; one mother could positively identify her ten-year-old’s body only because the little girl, while playing dress-up the night before, had used a crayon to color her toenails red. A set of twins was found lying next to each other, the boy’s arm in death reaching toward his sister. The youngest victim was only 4 years-old. He had been excited to accompany his mother on a visit to see his big sister’s class.
As the last of the debris was being removed from the site, a blackboard was found beneath a large concrete block. The message the teacher had written that day was still legible – “Oil and natural gas are East Texas’ greatest mineral blessings. Without them this school would not be here and none of us would be here learning our lessons.”
Within two months, the Texas Legislature passed a law requiring refiners to add a scent to odor-free natural gas. Today, because of the familiar stink of a chemical called mercaptan, another tragedy like New London will never happen again.


 

 


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