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  A Bright Future
Abilene Reporter-News
Beaumont Enterprise
Boone County, AR - Daily News
Daily Oklahoman
Dallas Observer
Handbook of Texas Online
Harrison Daily Times
Henderson Times
London Times-London High School
Martial Law
Memphis, TN - Commercial Appeal
Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel
NFPA Journal
Texas Military Forces Museum
Texas Monthly
Tyler Morning Telegraph
Upstream Press

Fact On Energy Newsletter

Sara Mosle NLSD Book Deal 12/1999
The Lives Unlived in Newtown 12/2012
  Dallas Observer (Part 2)  
  Before 1937, the biggest news to visit the region was the discovery of one of the world's richest oil deposits beneath its sandy loam soil. An Oklahoma wildcatter named C.J. (Dad) Joiner, using unconventional search techniques such as fortunetellers and divining rods, hit it big in 1930, and the area went from the Depression-era doldrums to staggering riches almost overnight. New London residents, in fact, had proudly claimed theirs the richest school district in the United States. Where else, they would boast, could one find a 15-acre school campus with 10 pumping oil wells located on the grounds?

One of Joiner's promises to a civic-minded local resident named Daisy Bradford was that if she would allow him to drill on her land, the oil revenue he was certain would result could provide an improved school for the children of New London. In 1934, the new $1 million school was built. Teachers' salaries were increased. New books, band instruments and a piano were purchased. Soon, the Wildcats had the first football stadium in the state lighted for night games. The county's population grew from a pre-oil boom 32,000 to 65,000.

Why, then, given the school's unlimited wealth, had it risked students' lives to save $3,000 per year on heating fuel?

The school board, at the urging of Superintendent William Shaw, had voted to heat their million-dollar school by siphoning off free natural gas, then a worthless byproduct of petroleum extraction, from a nearby refinery. This although petroleum experts considered the odorless and highly volatile gas too dangerous for commercial use.

In the days before the disaster, numerous students complained of headaches and burning eyes. Still it apparently never occurred to school officials that a pipeline might be leaking, that 6,000 cubic feet of gas had slowly collected beneath the foundation.

Ten days after the explosion, school resumed in makeshift classrooms on the New London campus. The 287 returning students--a little more than half the previous academic population--assembled in the gymnasium as somber teachers quietly called roll. The names of many drew no response except for the occasional "He's dead," or "She's still in the hospital."

Slowly, the townspeople's grief turned to outrage. Embittered parents threatened civil suits against the school district and the refinery from which the deadly gas had been siphoned. The U.S. Bureau of Mines, now a part of the Department of Interior, launched an investigation, calling Superintendent Shaw before a court of inquiry. Despite the fact he had lost a son and a niece in the blast, talk abounded for a time that a lynch party would visit his home. Though ultimately exonerated of any wrongdoing, Shaw resigned. "Years after the explosion," a friend remembers, "it was all he could talk about. He never got over it."

In time, a single lawsuit--a "test" case--was brought to trial despite the opposition of many families who worked for the oil companies and were thus reluctant to challenge their employers. The litigation divided the community to a point where shouting matches and occasional fights broke out on the steps of the courthouse. Finally, after months of testimony--much of it from young students who had survived the blast--Judge R.T. Brown stunned a crowded courtroom by ruling that none of those named in the suit could be held directly responsible.

One good thing came from the event. The Texas Legislature quickly passed a law requiring that a foul-smelling substance called methyl mercaptain be added to natural gas. Soon, the regulation was being adopted worldwide. It is because of the New London school explosion that natural gas used now has an easily detectable odor.

Today, it is no longer called the New London School. Since 1995 it has been known as West Rusk Consolidated, and enrollment has grown to 861 students--almost as many students as New London has residents (987).

Across the street from the school, where Charlie's Drug Store was once a favored hangout of the community's teen-agers, the London Museum and Tea Room offers visitors a moving reminder of the tragedy that struck just a few hundred yards from its front door. There are photographs and newspaper clippings, the telegrams and letters of condolence received and artifacts claimed from the wreckage. There's a copy of the edition of Life magazine that featured a lengthy photo story on the aftermath of the explosion, as well as the brief newsreel footage that showed in the nation's movie theaters the week after the disaster.
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  Overseen by Mollie Ward, a fourth-grader in 1937, the museum features one area that has been labeled "Ms. Wright's Classroom" and displays an antique blackboard salvaged after the explosion. There are remnants of papers written by her English students, along with dented lunch boxes and tattered spiral notebooks found and saved by those who searched the rubble.

"While I felt it was important to keep the memory of what occurred alive," Ward says, "I have to admit that I was concerned about the reaction some would have to the visual reminders of what was the worst day of many of their lives."

She need not have worried. Now, when survivors make their biannual pilgrimages to New London for reunions, Ward's museum is the first place they gather.

It's also a place, and a town, to which I'm drawn. For years, I've seldom made a trip into East Texas without detouring off Interstate 20 to visit New London. For reasons I can't fully explain, I'm drawn to its people, to the memorial, to the quiet drive into the dogwood- and tree-laden outskirts where the Pleasant Hill Cemetery sits atop a rise. I'm drawn to the headstones that bear the photographs of smiling children, their date of death all the same.

In that time, I've wondered why, in the grand scope of the nation's history, the New London explosion has been all but forgotten. Another disaster that occurred just two months later in Lakehurst, New Jersey--the flaming crash of the Hindenburg--eclipsed the nation's memory of New London, even though fewer lives were lost.

Only now, it appears, has the world beyond New London decided to take notice. Sara Mosle, a former New York teacher and journalist, was recently signed by Knopf to do a book on the event. "My grandfather worked in the oil fields near New London," she says, "and my mother was a first-grader at nearby Arp when the explosion occurred." An aunt, she says, was in the fourth grade. "I remember them talking about it when I was growing up, and the story has stayed with me. Yet it seemed to have dropped from the history books." Mosle's book, tentatively titled Boom, will be published in 2003.

I've come to know some of those who were there and survived that infamous day. As a journalist, I attended the first of their reunions in 1977. For some, I learned, it took nearly a lifetime before they could speak about it.

Claude Kerce, who now lives in DeSoto, was in the sixth grade, a student in Ms. Ann Wright's class memorialized at Mollie Ward's museum. "I remember one minute the teacher was talking, then all of a sudden there was nothing but dust everywhere," he says. "I ran toward the window and Miss Wright was standing by it. I pushed her out and then went out right behind her. We lived about two miles from the school and I ran every step of the way home. I never even looked back to see what had happened."

As Claude was making his way home, his father, a welder for Humble Oil Co., was driving past the school. Seeing the horrifying sight, he steered his pickup across the school yard, through the debris, and immediately went to work digging in the piles of rubble. It would be 30 hours before he reached home.

Claude's late brother G.W. remembered talking to his best friend, Billy Roberts, when the building exploded. A brick sailed past his head. He ran outside onto the football field, looking back at the mushroom of dust and smoke. Only later would he learn that just four of the 16 students in his 10th-grade geometry class survived. Billy Roberts was not among them. Until his death, G.W.--former minor-league baseball player, Exxon employee and past president of the local school board--carried a faded old school photo of Roberts in his billfold.

Decades later, Arthur Shaw, a 10th-grader in 1937, remained confused about the sequence of events. "I can remember sitting in geometry class, talking to a friend of mine about hitchhiking to Fort Worth the next day to see the fat stock show," he says. "And then I heard this rumbling noise. The next thing I can remember is being under a pile of boards and dirt, yelling for someone to help me.

"I vaguely remember someone taking me to the basement of the Baptist church where the local dentist and a hairdresser sewed some stitches into my head. Then, I was in somebody's truck and finally at the emergency room of Mother Francis Hospital in Tyler.

"A friend of mine, Elbert Box, was also there--he later had to have a leg amputated--and we talked. At the time, we both thought it had been only our classroom that blew up. We had no idea the whole school exploded."

Shaw, who suffered a fractured vertebra, was also unaware of the extent to which the tragedy had touched his family. An older sister had been in the library and escaped serious injury when a wall behind her fell and killed a teacher and several students in an adjacent room. Among them was his younger sister Dorothy, a sixth-grader.

"My older sister later found Dorothy in a row of bodies outside the school," he says. Also lying among the dead was his 16-year-old cousin Sambo Shaw, son of the school superintendent.

Marie Beard was a second-grader waiting for her older sister to get out of class when the school exploded. Suffering a concussion, severe damage to one eye and a broken pelvic bone, she was dug from the debris and placed into a bread truck that was being used as an ambulance. "There were a lot of bodies in there," she remembers, "but a boy named Billy and I were the only ones who were still alive."
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