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Sara Mosle NLSD Book Deal 12/1999
The Lives Unlived in Newtown 12/2012
  Dallas Observer (Part 1)  
  Today, A Generation Died
Dallas Observer
February 21, 2002

Revisiting the story of the 1937 New London gas explosion
the worst tragedy involving schoolchildren in American history
By Carlton Stowers

Lonnie Barber, janitor-driver for the New London School, watched as young children climbed aboard his bus, laughing and horse playing. The elementary school students--released 10 minutes earlier than their junior high and high school classmates--were in particularly high spirits that spring like Thursday afternoon of March 18, 1937. The next day had been declared a holiday so students could attend the annual district scholastic and athletic competition in nearby Henderson. It was an otherwise unremarkable day, except that because the much-anticipated casting for the annual senior play had begun, only four of the 740 students had been absent, a record for the new school year.

The lanky, gray-haired Barber shifted the bus into low gear and began a slow climb up a dirt road on the outskirts of the East Texas oil-field community. It was 3:20 p.m.

As Barber reached the crest of a hill, a sudden force of air shook the bus. There was a growing, loud rumble, then the shattering echo of an explosion. Simultaneously, Barber and the children turned their attention to the source of the noise. Two dozen horror-stricken faces stared back toward their 4-year-old school building--which was no longer there. In a bizarre, catastrophic moment that was to find its way into the history of American tragedy, there was nothing left but black smoke mixing with a spiraling cloud of red clay dust and sprayed rubble where the E-shaped building had once stood.

Had Barber looked back a split second earlier, he would have seen the same grotesque scene eyewitnesses would later recall: a rumble as the ground shook, then the walls of the two-story brick building seeming to expand outward. The red tile roof was momentarily lifted into the air, then crashed back down. Natural gas, used to heat the school's 72 steam radiators, had been accumulating from an undetected leak in the building's sub-basement for days, apparently ignited when a teacher flipped the switch to start an electric sanding machine in the school workshop.

Barber hesitated only briefly, then squared himself in his driver's seat and pressed the gas pedal to the floorboard. He knew the parents of the children he was transporting would be worried about their safety. Thus, even as word of the worst tragedy involving schoolchildren in American history was being flashed around the world, Barber, his face twisted with agony, dutifully completed his hour-long route just as he'd done for years.

Only then did he hurriedly return to the school to find out if his own four children were among the survivors.

He was met by chaos. People were digging with bare, bleeding hands into the smoldering rubble in an effort to reach screaming victims trapped beneath the twisted steel beams and brick. The gruesome remains of dozens of young victims had already been removed and placed along the edge of the school yard. Those drawn to them, searching madly for their children, quickly realized that identification was going to be a difficult task. Almost immediately, speculation of the number of deaths began to climb: 400, 500, maybe more. A form of insanity swept through the town. First on the scene were parents who had escaped death themselves only because a PTA meeting they were attending had, at the last minute, been moved from the school auditorium to the gymnasium. Soon, truckloads of oil-field roughnecks, released from their jobs as soon as word of the catastrophe reached drilling sites throughout Rusk County, arrived with bulldozers, winch trucks and acetylene torches. Local Boy Scout troops were called into action. Texas Governor James Allred, upon learning of the disaster, immediately dispatched National Guard troops. Red Cross and Salvation Army workers poured into the isolated community from throughout East Texas. Radio stations in nearby Tyler and Kilgore discontinued regular programming and served as a communications network for the rescue operation.

From Dallas, 120 miles to the west, came 30 doctors, 100 nurses and 25 embalmers who, because of the magnitude of their task and the lack of facilities, were forced to perform their work on tables set up on the school grounds. Every available form of transportation--buses, automobiles, pickups--was enlisted as ambulances or hearses. Bodies were pulled from the wreckage and lined up along a fence with school principal Troy Duran assigned the task of identifying the dead before they were transported to makeshift morgues.

The thunderous blast claimed the lives of 280 students and 14 teachers. One of them was 11-year-old fifth-grader Arden Barber, the bus driver's youngest son. His three other children, including high school senior L.V. Barber, were among the nearly 100 who escaped with injuries. "I was in the study hall, which was located in the far end of the building," L.V. Barber recalls, "and I wasn't injured, except for a few scratches. But my sister Pearl, who was sitting next to me, was hit by a part of the wall that fell and suffered a back injury. My younger brother Burton was in the shop where the explosion took place and somehow came out of it with only burns and a few cuts. As soon as I got out of the building I ran straight home to tell Mother what had happened. She'd already heard and was getting ready to go up to the school. My dad was there when we arrived, and he told us that Arden was dead but he hadn't been able to find his body.

"My parents finally located him later that night, in a funeral home over in Overton."

It was a story L.V. Barber rarely told during his lifetime. "Even Dad never talked much about the explosion after Arden's funeral," he says. "I guess he, like everybody else, just decided to try and put it behind him. He retired the next year, then died in 1969. I can remember newspaper people coming around every now and then, asking him questions about that day, but he never had much to say."

In modern Texas history, only two disasters have claimed more lives: the Galveston hurricane of 1900, in which nearly 8,000 died, and the 1947 Texas City chemical-plant explosion that killed more than 600. For years, in fact, many of those who lived through the nightmare chose simply to lock away their memories, as if by doing so they could somehow move past that horrific day when an entire generation had died.

Texas newspapers have occasionally dispatched reporters to do "anniversary" stories on the event that once made headlines worldwide, briefly reviving the horror story and repeating the question of why such a wealthy school district flirted with the danger of piping free natural gas into the school. Until recently, however, the tale of enormous grief and guilt, courage and triumph has remained a well-kept East Texas secret. Only now, with word that a New York journalist has received a high six-figure advance to write a book on the subject, does it appear the remarkable story will be told to a national audience.

That night brought a cold driving rain. Ignoring the weather, rescue crews dutifully went about their work. Bill Rives, an Associated Press reporter at the time, estimated that 2,000 men dug and carried away more than 5 million pounds of rock, brick and steel, moving it 100 yards from the explosion site, in less than 24 hours. Before they would finish, Rives wrote, "the area where the blast had occurred looked as if it had been swept clean by brooms."

Dallas' Felix McKnight, 26 at the time and also working for AP, opened his first dispatch with a sentence that would become a journalism classic. "Today," he wrote, "a generation died."
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  Now 91, the former Dallas Times Herald executive editor is quick to list the New London story as the most memorable he covered during a 65-year journalism career in which he also wrote the lead story for the Herald on the Kennedy assassination.

"It was dusk by the time Rives and I arrived," he recalls, "and workers were already clearing away the rubble, searching for survivors. A long line had formed and they were passing along peach baskets filled with debris. We identified ourselves and were immediately told that helpers were needed far more than reporters." Thus McKnight and Rives joined the brigade of oil-field roughnecks and distraught fathers in helping clear the area.

"I finally broke away after an hour or so and ran over to this little oil-field shack where there was a telephone," McKnight recalls. "It was being guarded, and I was told it was for emergency use only. But, finally, they let me use it for two minutes and I was able to dictate a brief bulletin."

After learning that a skating rink in nearby Overton had been converted into a makeshift morgue, McKnight went there in an effort to get a more accurate body count. "The enormity of what I saw there has never left me," he says. "There were lines of small bodies laid out on the floor, each covered with a sheet. I don't remember seeing a one that was identifiable. They had all been so mangled and torn apart by the blast." He remembers parents identifying their lost children only by the remnants of clothing on the bodies.

A doctor gave McKnight a bucket of formaldehyde and a sponge, telling him to sprinkle it onto the sheets. "I'd do it for a while," he says, "then, when my eyes began to burn so badly I couldn't see, I'd have to go outside for a few minutes."

Every building in the area--church basements, a drugstore, the gym, a garage--was converted into either a morgue or a field hospital. Every funeral parlor within a 50-mile radius was filled with victims. In Dallas, workers at a casket company were put on around-the-clock shifts to fill the sudden need. In Tyler, the grand opening of the new Mother Francis Hospital had been planned for the following Monday. The ceremony was quickly forgotten, and it opened as soon as word of the explosion reached the hospital administrator. The need for bandages and medication depleted the stock of every drugstore for miles. Traffic in and out of the community was bumper-to-bumper as the injured were being carried away and the curious were arriving.

Another Dallas-based newsman on hand was 22-year-old Walter Cronkite, a newly hired United Press International reporter. Cronkite, who would become a journalism icon covering major events worldwide, now says that nothing had prepared him for the scene he would find upon his arrival in New London.

"I got my first inclination of just how bad it was," the retired CBS Evening News anchorman says, "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."

Cronkite says he was there for four days, filing stories on the explosion, its aftermath and, eventually, the around-the-clock funerals. "Grief was everywhere," he recalls. "Almost everyone you ran into had lost a member of his family. Yet they went about doing everything they could to help each other. The men were digging out the bodies and removing the rubble while the women were helping the injured and supplying coffee and meals for the workers."

For many parents the search lasted days. A mother located one of her dead sons on the school grounds and placed his body in the backseat of her car. Then she began driving from one funeral home to another, finally locating the remains of her other child two days later. Another went from body to body, clutching a small piece of fabric left from a new dress she'd sewn for her daughter. Only when she was able to match the swatch to the clothing on one of the dismembered bodies did she learn that her child was dead.

Soon, an unsettling barrage of stories spread, some true, some embellished, many wholly fabricated. For a time, a rumor circulated that one of the students, angered by the reprimands of a too-strict teacher, had stolen several sticks of dynamite from one of the nearby drilling sites and had blown up the school. One story that was true, however, involved a father who earlier in the day had found his children at a nearby fishing hole, playing hooky. He'd scolded them and personally delivered them to school just hours before the explosion killed them.

Another woman, finding her dead 16-year-old daughter, suffered a fatal heart attack. Two mothers engaged in a hysterical fight over a mutilated corpse, each insisting it was her son. A young girl, uninjured by the blast, had jumped to safety from a second-floor window but had suffered a deep cut to her inner thigh when she landed on a pile of rubble. Before her condition was noticed, she bled to death.

A student, bleeding and in shock, approached rescue workers, begging that they help his best friend. When asked where he was, the boy pointed upward toward highline wires that stretched between two still-standing poles. Lying across them, 30 feet in the air, was a body.

A young Boy Scout from a neighboring community wandered through the debris carrying a sack, his assignment to collect scattered shoes. Many of them still contained the feet of mutilated victims. A number of the bodies, in fact, were unrecognizable. One youngster was finally able to identify his dead brother only after reaching into his pocket and locating the string he used to spin his prize top.

Funerals were soon held at an assembly-line pace--as many as a dozen were conducted simultaneously. When all hearses in the area were in use, pickup trucks were used to transport caskets to the Pleasant Hill Cemetery. Pallbearers literally raced from one grave site to another, as did members of a local church choir who had volunteered to sing a hymn during each ceremony. Oil-field workers dug the graves.

As word of the tragedy spread, a sympathetic world shared in the grief that had visited the isolated community. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt wired her sympathies, as did German dictator Adolf Hitler. A Japanese elementary class sent a telegram, expressing its sorrow. Soon a memorial fund was established and donations arrived from around the world. A Girl Scout troop in Kansas sent 25 cents it had collected. A 5-year-old Galveston girl who had been saving her pennies to purchase a doll mailed them to New London, saying she would rather they be used to memorialize the dead children. Students at the Cherbourg School in France conducted a drive and collected $9.50.

The funds helped pay for a permanent reminder of the tragedy that now stands across from the rebuilt school: a 34-foot-high, $20,000 cenotaph, carved from 120 tons of Texas granite. Engraved at its base is the name of each person who died in the blast.
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