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Sara Mosle NLSD Book Deal 12/1999
The Lives Unlived in Newtown 12/2012
  Handbook of Texas Online  
  NEW LONDON SCHOOL EXPLOSION. In 1937 New London, Texas, in northwest Rusk County, had one of the richest rural school districts in the United States. Community residents in the East Texas oilfield were proud of the beautiful, modern, steel-framed, E-shaped school building. On March 18 students prepared for the next day's Interscholastic Meet in Henderson. At the gymnasium, the PTA met. At 3:05 P.M. Lemmie R. Butler, instructor of manual training, turned on a sanding machine in an area which, unknown to him, was filled with a mixture of gas and air. The switch ignited the mixture and carried the flame into a nearly closed space beneath the building, 253 feet long and fifty-six feet wide. Immediately the building seemed to lift in the air and then smashed to the ground. Walls collapsed. The roof fell in and buried its victims in a mass of brick, steel, and concrete debris. The explosion was heard four miles away, and it hurled a two-ton concrete slab 200 feet away, where it crushed a car.

Fifteen minutes later, the news of the explosion had been relayed over telephone and Western Union lines. Frantic parents at the PTA meeting rushed to the school building. Community residents and roughnecks from the East Texas oilfield came with heavy-duty equipment. Within an hour Governor James Allred had sent the Texas Rangers and highway patrol to aid the victims. Doctors and medical supplies came from Baylor Hospital and Scottish Rite Hospital for Crippled Children in Dallas and from Nacogdoches, Wichita Falls, and the United States Army Air Corps at Barksdale Field in Shreveport, Louisiana. They were assisted by deputy sheriffs from Overton, Henderson, and Kilgore, by the Boy Scouts, the American Legion, the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and volunteers from the Humble Oil Company, Gulf Pipe Line, Sinclair, and the International-Great Northern Railroad.

Workers began digging through the rubble looking for victims. Floodlights were set up, and the rescue operation continued through the night as rain fell. Within seventeen hours all victims and debris had been taken from the site. Mother Francis Hospital in Tyler canceled its elaborate dedication ceremonies to take care of the injured. The Texas Funeral Directors sent twenty-five embalmers. Of the 500 students and forty teachers in the building, approximately 298 died. Some rescuers, students, and teachers needed psychiatric attention, and only about 130 students escaped serious injury. Those who died received individual caskets, individual graves, and religious services.

Three days after the explosion, inquiries were held to determine the cause of the disaster. The state of Texas and the Bureau of Mines sent experts to the scene. Hearings were conducted. 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 knowledge and approval of the school board and superintendent, 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 frequent money-saving practice for homes, schools, and churches in the oilfield. The researchers concluded that gas had escaped from a faulty connection and accumulated beneath the building. Green gas has no smell; no one knew it was accumulating beneath the building, although on other days there had been evidence of leaking gas. No school officials were found liable.

These findings brought a hostile reaction from many parents. More than seventy lawsuits were filed for damages. Few cases came to trial, however, and those that did were dismissed by district judge Robert T. Brown for lack of evidence. Public pressure forced the resignation of the superintendent, who had lost a son in the explosion. The most important result of the disaster was the passage of a state odorization law, which required that distinctive malodorants be mixed in all gas for commercial and industrial use so that people could be warned by the smell. The thirty surviving seniors at New London finished their year in temporary buildings while a new school was built on nearly the same site. The builders focused primarily on safety and secondarily on their desire to inspire students to a higher education. A cenotaph of Texas pink granite, designed by Donald S. Nelson, qv architect, and Herring Coe, sculptor, was erected in front of the new school in 1939.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Lorine Zylks Bright, New London, 1937: The New London School Explosion (Wichita Falls, Texas: Nortex, 1977). R. L. Jackson, Living Lessons from the New London School Explosion (Nashville: Parthenon, 1938). U.S. Senate, Explosion at Consolidated School, New London, Texas (Document 56, 75th Cong., 1st sess., 1937).

Irvin M. May, Jr.

The Handbook of Texas Online is a joint project of The General Libraries at the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas State Historical Association.

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  Harrison Daily Times September 22, 2003  
  Survivor recounts explosion, 300 killed
By James L. White

William "Bill" Grigg, 77, is a survivor of the school explosion at New London, Texas, in March 1937. On the table before him is one of many newspaper articles written about the incident in which it's estimated more than 300 students and teachers died.

William "Bill" Grigg, 77, says winter weather in east Texas isn't very severe. So on March 18, 1937, when he was an 11-year-old fifth grader at New London, Texas, it was a fairly nice day.

But shortly before school was set to be out that day, his world exploded - quite literally - and nothing would ever be exactly the same.

By all accounts, the school at New London was a marvel, a million-dollar facility when a million dollars meant something. In fact, New London was thought to be the richest rural school district in Texas if not the entire country, fueled with money from oil fields churning out black gold. Grigg said the district owned 27 oil wells.

Natural gas is a by-product of oil recovery and, as was common in those days, New London officials tapped into that waste product as a source of inexpensive heat. But natural gas is itself odorless and this was at a time before they started adding nasty smelling liquids to the heating/cooking source to detect leaks.

The two-inch gas line at New London School entered the building on the east side and ran through a crawl space varying from two to six feet deep and various smaller lines fed off of it.

Over time and with people playing with the line where it entered the building, the line developed stress leaks and filled the crawl space with natural gas completely undetected, researchers have surmised.

A small door opened onto the crawl space from the manual training room and, it is believed, when a maintenance man plugged in a portable sander it generated an electric arc that ignited the gas.

To say the effect was disastrous would be an understatement.

The building was E-shaped, built into the slope of a hill with the two wings at the rear built directly on the ground. The remainder of the building was directly over the crawl space.

At about 3:20 p.m., Grigg and another boy had just stepped outside the rear of the building to empty wastebaskets. He recalls they were admiring two 1936 Chevrolets and two 1936 Fords parked next to each other.

Grigg said it appeared the walls of the building sucked in, then back out. Debris began to fall all around them.

"And I run," he said, scaling a chain-link fence he'd never been able to climb before. "I don't remember any noise. I might have heard one, but I don't remember it."

Then he climbed back over the fence to try and find his two brothers who were still in the school, but he was unsuccessful.

He headed for home. Many of those memories are painful and he's blocked them out, so it's only been in the last few years that he's remembered that a man picked him up in a truck and took him home to his parents about five miles away.

When he got home, his father was shaving. He doesn't remember the conversation they had, but they eventually went to the school to try and find brothers Edwin and Horace.

As they searched, Grigg said, they came across a boy with a massive chunk of concrete on him. The boy asked them to help him get free and, with help from other volunteers, they obliged. The boy died soon after the concrete was lifted from his body.

They did find both Horace and Edwin, but neither was at the school.

Edwin had been killed and his body taken to the Legion Hall, which had been converted into a makeshift morgue. The Griggs noticed a foot protruding from the sheet over one body and recognized it as Edwin's - he had lost part of his foot in an accident a year earlier while playing on oil field equipment.

It would be the next day before they found Horace. He had survived the blast, but his back was broken in several places and one lung was pierced. He had been taken to a hospital in Overton, Texas, and when he regained consciousness he thought he'd been in a car wreck.

It was only a couple of weeks later, after his condition stabilized, that he was informed Edwin had been killed.

Grigg's son, William Grigg Jr., 42, has done a lot of research on the explosion. He said the concussion literally blew some kids' clothes and shoes off of them. Of survivors, he said, it wasn't uncommon to see naked kids running about.

He said children's dead bodies were buried under the rubble. Some bodies were in trees or on top of remaining buildings and one was even draped across a highline wire. One girl who survived the initial blast was stranded on top of a building. She tried to jump to safety, but landed on a pile of broken glass, slicing open the artery on her inner thigh. She quickly bled to death.

The elder Grigg said the scene was absolute carnage with "kids laying every place." It was estimated that about 1,000 volunteers, many of them oil field workers, descended on the scene to help with the rescue effort.

Grigg Jr. said the actual death toll is difficult to pin down. Some people picked up children's bodies and simply never returned, neither to the school nor to New London. One runaway boy of about 16 had found New London and decided that with oil field work at hand it would be a good place to settle. He attended his first day of classes that day and was killed, but it was only years afterward that his relatives figured out what had happened to him.

However, Grigg Jr. said, he thinks the death count is more than 310, with the vast majority being students.

The rescue effort was finished pretty quickly, but the aftermath was almost as disturbing.

Nurses and doctors were dispatched to New London from all across the state and 25 embalmers were sent there just to deal with the bodies.

Then came the funerals. Grigg said they were held daybreak to dusk until all the victims were properly eulogized. Grigg Jr. noted that pictures of the cemetery before showed massive open space, but within a few weeks of the explosion the graveyard had filled up quickly.

"They had to clear land for it," he added. Grigg Sr. put the incident behind him. He said it wasn't something one talked about in New London. Life just had to go on.

School officials moved portable wooden building onto the site for surviving students to finish the year. Students could still see the site of the former building and when one day a staff member accidentally turned over a filing cabinet, the already cagey students were startled and feared the worst.

"And we went out the windows," he said with a grin.

Grigg graduated from high school at nearby Kilgore, Texas, and joined the armed forces in 1944. He was assigned to a B-17 bomber during World War II, flying missions over Germany.

"It didn't bother me the way [the explosion] did," he said. He still thinks about it as little as possible. "I still have trouble talking about it," he said.

Some years ago, the survivors began having biannual reunions to commemorate the date the majority of a city's young people were killed. He went to one of those reunions, but when he and two other former fifth-graders met they could think of nothing much to say and just stood in a room crying. "So," he said with a faraway look in his eye, "I don't go back to them."

The entire event was traumatic for everyone in New London. Some parents lost as many as five children in the blast. But with all the slaughter that day, no counselors were brought in to aid survivors as is so commonplace these days.

Sometimes when he hears people say they don't know how anyone can go through something like that and live, he could offer a little bit of advice.
"It's surprising what you can do," he said.

EDITOR'S NOTE: William Grigg Jr. maintains an Internet website devoted to the New London School Explosion at
  Webmaster's Note: Upon the death of William Grigg Jr. the new London museum took over the Website and changed the web domain to  
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