The Day a Generation Died- the New London Consolidated School Explosion

March 18, 1937- middle and high school students and teachers in the New London Texas Consolidated School were patiently waiting for the clock to move toward 3:30 p.m, when school would finally be released.

Only 13 more minutes……

The elementary school-age children had already been dismissed and were in the process of boarding the school buses waiting outside. I can imagine high schoolers shuffling around in their desks, trying to put away their school supplies without the teacher noticing. Teachers try their hardest to keep the students’ attention to get out that last little bit of information. Notes are passed from one friend to another as they discuss what they will do after school. The countdown for summer had already started…and everyone was feeling the need for freedom. The next day would be exciting- no one had to go to school because everyone would be attending the annual scholastic and athletic competition for the whole district. Even the announcement that they wouldn’t be getting released early for the monthly PTA meeting that evening didn’t diminish the student’s excitement. One teacher had written on the blackboard, “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.”

3:17 p.m.- A spark from equipment in the workshop triggers an explosion that ripped through the building throwing the building into the air and smashing it back to the ground

W. G. “Bud” Watson was in the eighth grade at the time and remembered –

I was in shop class, which was on the first floor, with about thirty other boys. It was getting close to quitting time, and I was doing some welding in the front of the room when our teacher, Lemmie Butler, must have pulled an electrical switch to get a machine to work. Next thing I knew, I was picking myself up outside of the building. I don’t remember flying out the window, but the building was still coming down.

Charles Dial was in the sixth grade and he tells his story-

I had run home to get my band uniform and was just sitting down to put on my shoes when the school exploded. We heard explosions all the time from boilers in the oil field, but my mother said, “Something happened over there.” I said, “It’s probably one of those steam buildings blown up,” and she said, “It’s too loud. You get over there and see about your brothers. Get!” So I started off toward the school, and on the way I ran into my older brother, John, coming across the field. He was in rough shape. He said he was in shop class, and he asked the teacher to turn the band saw on, and when he opened the electrical box and pulled the switch, the electricity arced.

I told John to go home, that I’d find our brother Travis. I couldn’t believe what I saw when I got to the school. On the east wing there were a few bricks that didn’t get knocked down; on the south side there was a little of the building left. The rest was all gone. Flattened. The children were lying all over the ground.

The switch that was thrown had ignited the natural gas used to heat the school’s 72 steam radiators, which had been collecting from an unnoticed leakage in the building’s basement for days. The roof quickly fell in and buried the occupants in a mass of brick, steel, and concrete. Those who were stuck in the mess of debris called out, some only managing small muffle sounds as the dust of the plaster filled their mouths and clogged their noses. The explosion could be heard four miles away, and a two-ton concrete slab landed 200 feet away from the site onto a car that had been at a nearby gas station.

It took only 15 minutes for word of the accident to make its way across the Western Union lines. Governor James Allred sent in the Texas Rangers, the National Guard, and highway patrols to help the town with the recovery operations. East Texas oilfield supplied the heavy-duty equipment to aid in removing the large and heavy concrete slabs.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a statement asking the Red Cross and all government agencies to render assistance.

A newspaper article from the Daily Oklahoman stated

Two thousand human beavers dug away more than four million pounds of rock and steel in less than 24 hours in search for the 450 children killed in the London school disaster…. The oil field workers- hastily recruited from derricks all over the vast east Texas area- thus carried away about 200,000 pounds an hour, working in shifts of approximately one thousand men.

Walter Cronkite, working for the United Press International as a reporter, recalled his impression of the night that he arrived on the scene- 

I got my first inclination of just how bad it was when I got to Tyler and saw all the cars lined up at the funeral home. It was dark by the time I got to New London. I’ll never forget that scene…. I can still see those floodlights they had set up and the big oil-field cranes that had been brought in to remove the rubble. Men were moving around like a colony of ants, climbing up and down the piles of debris, literally digging with their hands.

Mothers who had been attending the PTA meeting in the Gym rushed to find their children. Thousands fled to the scene to help with the recovery process or to watch the day unfold. It was a logistical nightmare as the tiny bodies were pulled from the wreckage and laid to rest against the far fence line waiting for transportation to one of the many local buildings that had been converted to a mortuary. The Texas Funeral Directors sent twenty-five embalmers (another news report reported 75) to help with the process, bringing with them tiny coffins.

H. G. White remembers that-

Most of the rubble was moved with bare hands, not machinery. A guy came by with a truckload of peach baskets, and the workers formed a line and passed the baskets filled with body parts and cement chunks.

Of the 500 students and 40 teachers in the building, 298 died that day.  It is said that only 130 escaped without serious injury. 

First lady Eleanor Roosevelt wired her sympathies, as did German dictator Adolf Hitler when news flooded national and international newspapers. A Japanese elementary class sent a telegram, expressing its sorrow to their fellow classmates.

On Friday morning, after the drizzling rain turned into a complete thunderstorm, the weary rescue teams dug out the final remains. By noon, as skies cleared, exhausted workers began to leave, saluted by National Guardsmen. Ten days later, on Easter Sunday, after most families had buried their loved ones in nearby cemeteries, hundreds of visitors arrived for a memorial service at the explosion site.

The question on everyone’s mind needed answering. What caused the explosion? The state of Texas and the Bureau of Mines sent specialists to the scene. The U.S. Army and local agencies conducted hearings. From these investigations, researchers learned that until January 18, 1937, the school had received its gas from the United Gas Company. To save gas expenses of $300 a month, plumbers, with the school board and superintendent’s knowledge and approval, had tapped a residue gas line of Parade Gasoline Company. School officials saw nothing wrong because the use of “green” or “wet” gas was a common money-saving practice for homes, schools, and churches in the oilfields. The investigators determined that gas had escaped from a faulty connection and collected beneath the school. Green gas has no smell; no one knew it was gathering beneath the building, although there had been evidence of leaking gas on other days.

No school officials were found liable from the investigation.

Public pressure forced the resignation of the superintendent, who had lost a son in the explosion. Bill Thompson remembers that

The superintendent, Mr. [W. C.] Shaw, was brought into court time and time again. He was acquitted. Still, a lot of people blamed him for switching to this raw gas. That man had a burden no one else had. He had a nervous breakdown. Some people wanted to tar and feather him. Eventually, he resigned and left town.

The most significant result of the disaster was the passage of a state odorization law, which required that distinctive malodorants, a chemical compound that creates an extreme stench, be mixed in all gas for commercial and industrial use so that the smell could warn people. Shortly after the disaster, the Texas Legislature met in an emergency session and enacted the Engineering Registration Act, now rewritten as the Texas Engineering Practice Act. Public pressure was on the government to regulate engineering practice because of the faulty installation of the natural gas connection at the London School, believed to have resulted in the natural gas leak. The current U.S. regulation is 49CFR, 192.625, “Odorization of Gas” mandates that any combustible gas within a distribution line and transmission line must contain odorant at the level of 20% (1/5) of the lower explosive limit so that a person with a “typical” sense of smell can detect it.

A year later, Amos S. Etheredge remembers that-

In 1938, when we started school in the new building, the students decided to have a holiday on March 18. So we left the building and gathered under a memorial that had been built. And Mr. [Willie] Tate, who was a science and math teacher, talked us into going back to class. He said, “You’ve got to forget this. You can’t keep thinking about it the rest of your lives.” So we went back and finished classes. Life goes on. It has to.

It wasn’t until 1978 that a memorial service was held for the survivors who had suffered in silence and carried the grief of that day for over 40 years. It had been an unspoken agreement to that point that no one would speak of the horrors that they had experienced. When the day finally came that they were allowed to feel, healing finally started.

I called my mother at 9:30 at night to share some of the information that I had learned about this day, especially about Hitler sending a letter of condolence to a small east Texas town. She asked me a simple question- ‘Can you ever research a happy topic?’ It is hard to imagine finding a glimmer of happiness when talking about the death of a generation. However, the outcome- the changes to the laws and practices for homes, schools, and business was that thousands of lives were saved. I fully believe that we need to tell the story- remember that there were little lives lost, families torn apart, and a town that never fully recovered from the loss. When we lose the ability to hear the reasoning for change- that is when we will never fully appreciate where we are now.

As always, friends, I invite you to research this subject more on your own. There are countless oral and written histories on this day- many too gruesome for me to talk about. In 1988, The London Museum and Tea House was created across the highway from the school site- its first curator was Mollie Ward, a survivor from that day. There have also been a few films produce including the eye-witness testimonies of the survivors and the rescuers from that dreadful day.

And remember, today is a good day to be Great at what you are Good at!

What are your thoughts?

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