Tadpole's Outdoor Blog

September 16, 2012


Filed under: Neal Murphy — Freddie Keel @ 6:00 am






At approximately 3:15pm, 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 that had collected inside the school.  Witnesses stated that the walls of the school bulged outward, the roof lifted from the building, and then crashed back down.  The main wing of the school 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.

I was only six months old at the time thus I do not recall this tragedy, but remember my parents and others discussing it for many years.  The New London school explosion occurred on March 18, 1937.  It destroyed the school of New London, Texas, a community in Rusk County.  The disaster killed more than 295 students and teachers, making it the worst catastrophe to take place in a United States school building.

Estimates of the dead vary from 296 to 319, but that number could be even higher as many of the residents of New London at the time were transient oilfield workers.  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.  Approximately 600 students and 40 teachers were inside the building at the time.  Only 130 escaped without serious injury.

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 along with it.  The London School was a large structure of steel and concrete which was constructed in 1932 at a cost of $1 million dollars.  In today’s economy that would approach $16 million dollars.  The London Wildcats ( a play on the term “wildcatter”, or oil prospector ) played football in the first stadium in the state to have electric lights.

The school was built on sloping ground, and a large dead-air space was contained beneath the structure.  This turned out to be a deadly situation.  The school board had overridden the architect’s plans for a boiler and steam distribution system, instead opting to install 72 gas heaters throughout the school building.

The school board made another mistake in early 1937 in cancelling their natural gas contract and had plumbers install a tap into Parade Gasoline Company’s residue gas line in order to save money.   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 to this procedure.  This raw gas varied in quality from day to day.

Untreated natural gas is both odorless and colorless, so leaks are undetectable.  Apparently gas had been leaking from the residue line tap, and had collected inside an enclosed crawlspace that ran the entire 253 feet length of the building’s façade.  Students had complained of headaches for some time, but little attention had been paid to it.

The resulting explosion was heard for miles.  The most immediate response was from parents at a PTA meeting in the gymnasium, a separate structure roughly 100 feet from the main building.  Within minutes area residents started to arrive at the scene 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.  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, Texas.  Airmen from Barksdale Field, deputy sheriffs, and even Boy Scouts took part in the rescue and recovery efforts.  They soon discovered that most of the bodies were either burned beyond recognition, or literally blown to pieces.

Many reporters arrived to cover the story.  Among them was Walter Cronkite 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.”

A new school was completed in 1939 on the same property but 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 then changed to West Rusk High School, and the mascot was changed to the “Raiders”.

Experts from the U.S. Bureau of Mines concluded that the connection to the residue gas line was faulty.  The connection had allowed gas to  leak into the school.  Since the gas was invisible and 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.  The strong odor of most thiols makes leaks quickly detectable.  The practice quickly spread worldwide.

In 2008 some of the last living survivors of the explosion shared their personal stories of their experience with documentary filmmaker 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 mostly by survivors and eye witnesses.  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.

As of 2010 the New London School Explosion stands as the deadliest school disaster in American history, and the third deadliest disaster in the history of Texas, after the Galveston hurricane of 1900, and the 1947 Texas City dock explosion.






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