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  A Bright Future
Abilene Reporter-News
Angelic Pictures - Press Release
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
  Martial Law Source Unknown  
  Rangers, highway patrolmen & nearby units of the National Guard were ordered to London by Gov. Allred. Martial law soon reduced the confusion to order & the work of recovering the bodies of the dead & getting the injured to hospitals or homes went on with system, made easier too by the prompt sending of doctors, nurses, ambulance & medical supplies from about all the towns & cities in East Texas. With the arrival of the soldiers, by order of the Gov. an investigation of the cause of the explosion was gotten under way. Other investigations forecast were by the Legislature, State fire marshal & the railroad commission.

In as much as many of the bodies taken from the ruins were unrecognizable, it was thought at Austin that fingerprints given by school children at Centennial last fall might lead to the identification of some of the dead. The safety Dept. sent men to take fingerprints of such children as otherwise might not be identifiable.

Rev. R. L. Jackson, Methodist minister at London, lives 2 blocks from the high school site. He said that the explosion threw members of his family to the floor. L. V. Barber, a senior, was in study hall & gave his experience as one of the survivors. He remembers hearing no explosion but the first intimation he got of the trouble was feeling the particles of falling plaster or mortar on his neck. Then he saw the building was caving-in & heard the rumble of the falling roofs & walls. He thought that most of the students in the study hall escaped through the windows.

Miss Olgo Larsen, Red Cross nurse from Tyler, found about 1,000 rescue workers digging in the ruins for bodies she said. She was joined by some 25 other nurses of her order. Miss Christine Beasley, teacher, was in the school cafeteria when she became conscious of the calamity. She at once ran towards the crumbling high school building in a shower of bricks, mortar & various falling dangers. She stumbled over bodies of children that had been stricken down on the campus by flying wreckage or hurled from the building by the blast. Evelyn Peters was among those who were flung by the explosion through a window, her foot striking a nail in a board or beam, causing a painful wound, but considered herself very fortunate indeed to have escaped worse fortune.

J. B. Nelson, Jr., oil company employee, was also among those retiring from the building through a window. He saw 20 children in a room, he said, buried under falling books from the bookshelves & some badly injured. Houston sent nurses, physicians & skilled rescue workers.

The Humble Oil & Refining Co. got 15 nurses & 4 physicians to London by special bus at 7 o'clock on the evening of the explosion. The contingent was in charge of Dr. T. L. Fontaine. Dallas sent even a larger body of workers in all lines of rescue work.

Besides the Red Cross, of which the President is the head, the War Dept. & the Bureau of Mines at Washington headquarters set relief agencies at once in motion Thurs. evening, and each started an investigation to ascertain the cause of the disaster. Wichita Falls sent an airplane load of nurses & doctors.

Principal T. R. Duran, whom the newsmen sought to get information as to London's fine school, now destroyed in part, said that the pride of the school is the manual training dept. which includes a workshop equipment costing $7000 with a mechanical drawing room. A 65 piece band is one of the musical features; there is some $3500 invested in band instruments; 2 laboratories have $2000 worth of equipment; the athletic field is lighted, graded & sodded. Steel bleachers has a seating capacity of 1260. Reliable estimates places the value of the school properties, including oil well royalties from the school district owned lands, at $1,000,000.

Dallas sent 30 doctors, 100 nurses, 25 embalmers & many ambulances. A man who sells school supplies had an appointment with one of the school teachers on the afternoon of the disaster. He arrived (having been delayed,) two minutes after the explosion. One story was that a boy and a girl were found together in the ruins Friday morning, having been there since 3:20 o'clock the afternoon previous, under the ruins, but sheltered by an encrusted mass of fallen roof. They were alive but hysterical as they were bourn out of the wreckage. Midafternoon Friday, the work of clearing away the wreckage ceased at the scene of the disaster. The last body had been taken from the ruins Friday morning-it being the 425th. The oilfield laborers who had done most of the work earned much praise from parents, observers & newsmen. They toiled long & faithfully in the ruins from mid afternoon Thurs. until the same hour Fri. afternoon.
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  Memphis Commercial Appeal  
  Grief of Old Lingers Still
65 years ago, a blessing blew up in Texas
by Geneva Stovall
March 21, 2002

William Harold Follis thought about playing hooky the day his school blew up.

The London, Texas, seventh-grader and his best friend Junior Meadows toyed with the idea, then discounted it. After all, it was Thursday and there'd be no school the next day, so they already had a long weekend in front of them.

But by the end of the day, Harold Follis's long weekend stretched painfully into months of grief and years of guilt, and life ended for his young friend.

It was this week 65 years ago when East Texas's greatest blessing became its most monumental horror. London School, built just a year earlier as a byproduct of the oil boom, exploded in a roiling rubble of concrete and steel and schoolbooks and students, and when the dust settled from this nation's worst disaster involving children, 282 students were dead, along with 14 of the burgeoning school's staff. Some said a generation died that day.

And Follis, 78, now of Nashville and formerly of Memphis, remembers it all too well.

Family circles broken

Follis was in math class that afternoon when, right after his teacher made him move to a desk at the front of the class, the outer wall of the second-floor classroom vanished. Follis and several other students emerged, dazed, from beneath a row of battered lockers.

"The right knee of fabric was cut out of my overalls," he says, "but there wasn't even a scratch on my knee. Later I realized I had a cut on my lower back."

Follis gingerly worked his way down the side of the gaping building and jumped first onto a small utility shack, then to the ground. He started helping rescuers dig others from the rubble.

The Harold Follis of today suddenly begins to cry, still carrying the self-imposed guilt he felt as a helpless 12-year-old.

While digging, he found three students pinned together under the steel, concrete and bricks. They were bloody and barely conscious, and "I uncovered them, then had to watch them die."

Edwin Zane Elrod thought of playing hooky that day, too, but his sister Geneva, the eldest of the school-age Elrod progeny, would not hear of it. She made him climb on the bus with her and his other brother and sister, Alvin and Juanita, and only a few hours later half of the four were dead. Edwin and Juanita were killed instantly, Alvin was unscathed, and Geneva was taken to a hospital in a bread truck pressed into emergency service. She'd been literally blown out of her second-story English class.

In triage in the hospital hallway, she was placed against a wall and left for dead. With many broken bones, some protruding from her legs, she was deemed beyond saving. There were so many others with less severe injuries who stood better chances of survival. But she clung to life, and eventually the doctors put her back together as best they could. Long after her brother and sister and all the others had been laid to rest, she left the hospital. At home she progressed from wheelchair to crutches, then walked on her own, something her doctors had said she'd never do again.

After her return home, she graduated - receiving her diploma while standing on her own front porch. The 18-year-old went on to marry and have a family, and eventually moved to Memphis in 1989. She died eight years later at age 79.

Cause and effect

The Saturday after the explosion, a military tribunal was convened at the site of the ruins during a light dusting of spring snow. W. C. Shaw, the school superintendent, was blamed by many for the catastrophe, even though his own son was killed and Shaw himself was injured; he appeared before the tribunal wearing bandages.

But the culprit was determined to be natural gas that had collected within an open area beneath the school's basement shop class. The oil from the many derricks on the countryside had a distinct smell, but the gas did not. After the explosion, the Texas Legislature mandated that a malodorant be added to natural gas.

On the afternoon of March 18, 1937, a few minutes before school was to be dismissed for the day - and the three-day weekend, thanks to an all-day school competition Friday in nearby Overton - the state-of-the-art building was an ersatz bomb with a fuse about to be lit.

It happened in the basement shop class, when an electrical spark from the plug to a piece of shop machinery ignited the trapped gas, sending the youngest part of town into hospitals, cemeteries and history books.

After the military court of inquiry's investigation exonerated the superintendent, calls for Shaw's resignation soon ceased, and London went about the grim task of burying its dead and restoring its soul. And despite the anguished scurrying of parents to locate their dead and injured children, the bodies of two girls lay unclaimed in a mortuary for several days.

In many cases identification was next to impossible, and Follis recalls two anguished fathers literally "hitting each other with their fists" in a fight to claim one girl's body as it lay on the floor of a church gymnasium.

Two days after the explosion, Follis was asked to go to the church gym in Overton, a few miles away, to help identify other victims. It was there that he came across the body of his best friend and hooky co-conspirator, Junior Meadows.

Surviving, enduring

Bobby Clayton and other survivors, like Geneva Elrod, were included on the list of the known dead published in newspapers across the state in the early days following the explosion.

In the early 1940s, Clayton lived in West Point, Ark., and his discharge from the Navy in 1946 came at the Naval Air Station at Millington. He now lives in Pittsburgh, Pa., and has a sister who lives in Germantown.

Clayton has sent some of his clothing to the London Museum - "my little trousers that I had on that day. They plan to display them." Now 75, Clayton was in the fifth grade at the time of the explosion and had transferred to London from Kensett, Ark., just three weeks earlier.

Ruth Else, 90, now of Oxford, Miss., was a hairdresser who lived in Overton when the explosion occurred, and lost friends and neighbors in the disaster. She was called upon to style the hair of the victims before their burials.

But, "it just got me," she said. "I worked on several, but I couldn't stand it, so my brother took me home."

Else was 25 at the time, and had a good friend at London School about to graduate. "That day, her brother said, 'Know what? I'm not going. I'm going to play hooky.' My girlfriend Bernice said if he did, he'd really get in trouble."

The boy didn't listen to his sister and played hooky anyway. "Everyone in his class got killed," Else said. Her girlfriend survived the explosion and now lives in Houston.

"My older brother was a scoutmaster," Else says, "and as soon as he heard, he went over to help. It was just awful, horrible. Like Sept. 11."

Moving beyond past

Follis left London after the explosion when his family moved to Talco, Texas, where he graduated from high school in 1941.

When he made his first visit back to London in the mid-'40s, he sought out old acquaintances to discuss the disaster, "and I was told, 'Harold, we don't talk about it around here.'"

Indeed, it was decades before London could begin to share its collective grief.

In the 1960s, several school systems, including London's, merged to form the West Rusk County Consolidated Independent School District.

Today, London is known as New London, Texas, but not because it rose from the ashes of its despair with the new name. To give the town its own post office, the federal government required the name change.

The school was rebuilt long before many lives were, and today a huge, pink granite cenotaph rises, derrick-like, from a grassy median in front of the school, now named West Rusk High School. The monument is surrounded by a pink granite fence etched with the names of those who died.

Every two years, alumni from all graduating classes gather for a mass reunion on the weekend closest to the disaster's anniversary - in 2003, on March 14-16 - and the reunions always end with a Sunday memorial service.

And on March 21, 1998, the London Museum opened across the highway from the school, setting up shop in what was for many years McConnico's Drugstore. Mollie Ward, the museum curator, was a fourth-grader in 1937 who was not in the building when the explosion occurred.

The museum has three rooms, one of which is a reproduction of a classroom. The room contains an antique blackboard, found in the rubble that day, on which a student had written these words, which are still legible:

"Oil and natural gas are East Texas' greatest mineral blessings. Without them this school would not be here and none of us would be learning our lessons."

It is an irony New London will never forget.
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  Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel  
  New London School Explosion
by Archie P. McDonald
December 9, 2001

East Texas has had more than its share of disasters--the Galveston hurricane of 1900 and the industrial explosions in Texas City in 1946 are examples--but the day the school house in New London blew up has a singular pathos because so many of its victims were children.

New London is located in Rusk County in the oil patch. Wealth from the East Texas field enabled its residents to erect one of the most modern school buildings in the state.

By 3:05 P.M. on March 18, 1937, the school day had nearly ended. Younger grades had been dismissed and some youngsters waited on school buses for older students to join them for the ride home. Some students still in the building practiced for Interscholastic League competition while others put away materials. A PTA meeting was being held in the adjacent gymnasium.

Then industrial arts teacher Lemmie Butler turned on a sander in his shop and a spark ignited natural gas that had leaked from pipes under the school and been trapped in rooms throughout the building.

The building was lifted in the explosion, then crushed into rubble. Residents who lived four miles away heard the explosion, though they were not alarmed at first because such noises often came from the oil field.

Those who knew what had happened quickly spread the word, and help came. Governor James Allred sent Texas Rangers and Highway Patrolmen to assist local law enforcement personnel. If alive, victims were rushed to area hospitals; if not, the Texas Funeral Directors Association sent twenty-five embalmers to help in the massive task of preparing the nearly 300 dead for burial.

What had happened? To save a monthly $300 bill for natural gas usage at the school, the school district had tapped into a gas line coming from the field. Natural gas is odorless, so teachers and students in the building were unaware that leaks had allowed it to become trapped in the building. The spark from the sander ignited the gas and the explosion destroyed the school.

However unwise, the practice of using such gas was a common one in the area. The major positive that came from the New London School Explosion was legislation requiring gas companies to add an odor to their product so anyone can determine when natural gas is leaking or not properly utilized.

New London's citizens built a new school and in 1939 a cenotaph was erected nearby in memory to the students and teachers who lost their lives in the worst single disaster East Texans ever suffered.

Archie P. McDonald is Director of the East Texas Historical Association and author or editor of more than 20 books on Texas.

He is also a professor of history at SFA and a contributing writer for The Daily Sentinel.
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