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  Beaumont Enterprise  
  The New London School Explosion
by W. T. Block

In addition to the horrific losses that its servicemen endured during World War II, East Texas also suffered 2 natural disasters within the World War decade. Two ships exploded in Texas City on April 16, 1947, killing 576 people and injuring 3,500. On March 18, 1937, the New London, Texas school blew up, killing 298 of 540 students and teachers and 150 more were injured. All of Texas cried a little that day.

The school exploded at 3:05 PM, only 10 minutes before the final bell, which would have emptied the building quickly. I recall that afternoon so vividly because as soon as I returned from my Enterprise-Journal route, I was asked to hawk newspaper "extras" of the disaster at Nederland Pharmacy. However, I did not realize the enormity of the tragedy until I listened to the radio at home.

New London, located in northwest Rusk County, was one of the oil-rich school districts in the world's biggest oil field, where 24,000 gushing wells plummeted the price of petroleum to 10 cents a barrel. The 253-foot long building was almost new, and many students were practicing for the Interscholastic League meeting to be held at Henderson the next day. Instead the school went up in an explosion so devastating that a 2-ton slab was blown 200 feet, and the roof collapsed into a mound of broken concrete, steel and bricks, with dozens of voices crying out beneath to be rescued.

By nightfall, pleas for doctors, nurses, rescue workers, ambulances, and lifting machinery were broadcast in 4 states. Beaumont sent about 100 rescue workers, and oil field roughnecks brought heavy machinery to lift out the roof steel, broken walls, and construction timbers. All hospitals sent medical supplies; doctors and nurses arrived and worked in heavy rain to alleviate suffering; and Gov. Allred rushed the Texas Rangers and State Highway Patrol to the scene.

Thirty morticians arrived to embalm the dead, bringing loads of coffins with them. As a result each of the dead students and teachers was interred in individual coffins and graves; and each with separate religious services.

The Texas Bureau of Mines soon began a board of inquiry to investigate the cause of the explosion. Until 2 months earlier, the school had paid a monthly gas bill of about $300 to United Gas Co. However, because nearby homes, churches, and even schools purchased "green" oil field gas from Parade Gas Company, the school hired plumbers to hook up the school to the "green gas" lines on Jan. 18th. Because the plumbers left leaks, and "green gas" is odorless, it began collecting in the hollow clay tiles of the building's walls without anyone's knowledge. And on March 18, a spark from a sanding machine in the manual training department set off the blast.

The New London explosion immediately brought about changes in school construction, especially in the 8-mile by 40-mile oil field. Another result was passage of the 'state odorization law,' which required that malodoronts be mixed in with methane gas destined for commercial or household use.

New London soon built its new school on an adjoining site. Public indignation forced the resignation of the school superintendent, even though his son was killed in the explosion. More than 70 law suits for damages resulted from the explosion, but a district judge dismissed them for lack of evidence that the school district or builders had been negligent.

Today a granite cenotaph, sculpted by Beaumont's Herring Coe, is erected on the blast site. The explosion has a special significance for me since my former art teacher at Port Neches was killed in the disaster.

The author, W. T. Block, publishes two columns weekly in the Enterprise as well as writing for three other newspapers.
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  Boone County, AR - Daily News  
  Boone County, AR - Daily News March 19, 1937

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