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
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
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
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
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
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
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
To say the effect was disastrous would be an
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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 nLSE.org.
Webmaster's Note: Upon the death of William Grigg
Jr. the new London museum took over the Website
and changed the web domain to