Casey Cavanaugh Grant, P.E.
Rescue workers search the ruins of the New
London Junior-Senior High School in New London,
Texas, following a natural gas explosion that
leveled most of the school and killed 311
students and teachers. [photo right]
On March 18, 1937, the sun rose over the East
Texas horizon to reveal a beautiful spring day.
The skies were blue, and the warm temperatures
whispered that the heat of summer was not far
away. It was Thursday, a day much like any other
in the unincorporated districts of London and
New London, located in the Northwest corner of
Rusk County, Texas.
Unlike many other parts of the United States,
oil money flowed through this region, sparing it
many of the problems that the Great Depression
had visited on most other parts of the world.
Some of this prosperity was reflected in the
region's school systems. The campus of the
consolidated London and New London district
covered several acres and boasted seven oil
wells and a number of detached buildings of
brick and frame construction. Overshadowing the
grammar school, gymnasium, band room, domestic
science building, and several other structures
was the junior-senior high school.
The junior-senior high school was the
centerpiece of the campus. Built in 1931 with
additions in 1934, the steel-framed structure
was designed in the California-Spanish style,
with hollow tile and brick trimmed in stone. It
was set on sloping ground so that, even though
it appeared from the front to be a one-story
structure, anyone approaching from the rear
would see two stories, since the basement was at
ground level on this side.
The facility had a symmetrical layout that
formed a gigantic letter "E" when viewed from
above. Its main front section and its three wings
covered nearly 30,000 square feet of fertile
Texas soil. In 1937 dollars, the structure was
valued at $300,000 - quite a sum in those days.
Of course, no credible dollar value could be
placed on the lives of the occupants.
By the middle of the afternoon that March day,
the grammar school classes had been dismissed.
Most of the younger children had headed home,
although some had to wait for their parents, who
were attending a Parent Teachers Association
meeting in the gymnasium. Two hundred yards
away, the students in the junior-senior high
school were about to cast their ballots in the
school elections. It was just after 3:00p.m.,
and the school day was practically over.
In the high school's basement woodshop, a
student named John Dow watched his shop teacher
walk over to a wall socked approximately 2 feet
from a partially open door to the building's
concealed space and unplug an electric sanding
machine. Suddenly, there was a flash of
brilliant light and heat, and a thunderous
explosion blew the floors and roof of the
At 3:08p.m., only 7 minutes before classes were
to be dismissed, the students and teachers of
the New London Independent School's
Junior-Senior High School became the victims of
one of the worst school disasters in history.
The blast, which produced a low, rumbling noise,
occurred with horrific suddenness and ferocity.
Every witness agreed that there was just one
explosion, the terrific force of which smashed
to atoms the floor of the main structure, an
8-inch concrete slab, and sent it through the
roof by way of the occupied classrooms. Moments
later, debris from the floor, roof, and walls
came tumbling down on any would-be survivors.
As workers in the nearby oil fields watched in
stunned disbelief, the parents and staff
attending the PTA meeting rushed out of the gym
to see debris falling on a mound of rubble that
had, just moments before, been the junior-senior
"I saw the building go up like smoke or dust,"
said F.B. Doles, an onlooker. "It was just one
great big puff."1
"I was in the home economy building about 60
yards from the school when I heard a terrible
roar," 18-year-old Martha Harris later stated.
"The earth shook, and brick and glass came
showering down. I looked out a window and saw my
friends dying like flies."2
Just outside the building, the students in the
day's last physical education class ran for
cover. Though injured by falling debris, all of
these bewildered youngsters survived. Their
instructor was not so fortunate, however. Mr.
A.W. Waldrop had just reentered the building for
a moment, only to be caught in the full fury of
Very little of the structure remained standing
after the explosion. In the most remote parts of
the building's three wings, portions of walls
and roof remained intact, sheltering a few small
pockets of survivors. But for most, death was
immediate. Many of the victims were crushed
under tons of debris. Those near what would
later be considered the origin of the blast were
Even onlookers in the vicinity at the time of
the blast were in danger from falling debris.
One automobile 200 feet away from the school was
crushed like an eggshell under a 2-ton slab of
concrete hurled from the building. Altogether,
50 cars were wrecked by falling stones. Some of
the flying wreckage included children, thrown
through the air like broken rag dolls.
In only one fully occupied classroom, located in
one of the more remote portions of one of the
wings, was no one fatally injured. A 24-year-old
oil field worker named Don Nelson was
temporarily watching over this class for his
mother, who was the classroom teacher. He had
relieved her shortly before 3:00p.m. to allow
her to spend a few minutes taking care of
another activity. Mrs. Nelson died in the blast.
"The explosion came without any warning," Nelson
said.3 "Everything was quiet in my room. I was
leaning against a window. There was a loud
noise. It wasn't deafening, but it was plenty
loud. The walls and floor shook. The plaster
"Then two or three of the kids started running
toward me. I didn't have another thought but to
stick. While the tumult and roar continued, I
had no idea what it was. I herded them out into
the open fast. In less than a minute after the
first thunder, we were all out.
As soon as we were all out, I ran around the
corner of the wall which was still standing, and
then I began to get an idea of what happened.
The first I saw was the rest of the building
sprawled out on the ground. I saw a child lying
20 yards away. It was dead. Then I saw other
bodies in the school yard.
"With two or three other men who rushed up, I
went into the ruins. The first thing we came
upon was a crumpled bookcase, tilted over some
desks. The space under this protecting bookcase
was alie with children. There were about 10 kids
under there. Some were carried out. Some got up,
dusted themselves, and walked out with
"While we were digging down to them, one little
fellow, whose leg was broken, asked to each of
us in turn, 'Mister, will you get me out,
"'Just a minute, sonny, we're coming,' we
"We were not so fortunate as we went on. We
found no more children who could walk away. Some
were injured horribly. Most were dead. It is one
of the most horrible experiences a man can
In another part of the school, Don Nelson's
brother John, age 17, also survived the blast.
He was one out of only five in his class who
lived. Even though their mother had perished,
the Nelson family had cheated fate: Both
brothers had survived. Some families were not so
fortunate. Many lost a number of children. In
some cases, every child in a particular family
The Pain of Rescue
As soon as the violent energy of the blast had
been fully expended and the debris had settled,
bystanders began to attempt whatever rescue was
possible. The scene soon became on of subdued
chaos. Desperate parents swarmed to the scene,
shocked and hysterical, and stood around the
rubble, making their misery and grief known to
those searching through the debris.
About 1,500 oil workers rushed without
hesitation to the blast site, and worked
relentlessly for hours, looking for bodies. Many
were afraid that they would find their own
children, who had been inside the high school
when it went up and were now missing. In the oil
fields, these men were appropriately called
"roughnecks," but during the relief work, they
were given the title of "angels."
Fire apparatus from the local rural districts
and the nearby oil companies also responded
immediately, but fire fighters were relegated to
searching for survivors and dealing with human
carnage. No fire followed the explosion,
presumably because the amount of combustible
material in the school was small. The main
structure had been built of concrete, steel, and
tile, and the windows were metal factory sash.
Apart from the furniture and the interior wood
trim at the doors, everything was practically
non combustible up to the wooden roof deck.
From Warm Springs, Georgia, President Franklin
D. Roosevelt dispatched a telegram promising
that "the Red Cross will do everything possible.
You have my authority to call on every agency of
the government to aid."4 The medical director
for the American Red Cross was immediately
dispatched to Texas, and Red Cross workers soon
began arriving to help the injured and comfort
Doctors and nurses from as far away as Fort
Worth, Little Rock, Houston, Shreveport, and
Dallas also arrived, ready to apply their
much-needed skills. In the nearby community of
Tyler, plans were being finalized for the
dedication ceremony of a brand-new hospital,
scheduled to open the following week. After
receiving a phone call reporting the explosion,
the staff went into action a week early. More
than 100 children many of who had suffered
serious head injuries, were brought to the new
medical facility, although it had only 60 beds.
As word of the disaster spread, thousands of
automobiles blocked the highways leading into
the community. The state police and American
Legionnaires had initially rushed to the scene
and taken charge, but crowds estimated at more
than 5,000 soon threatened to overwhelm them.
The curious and would-be rescuers were elbow to
elbow with parents of children still missing.
Though the onlookers were united by hope and the
best of intentions, they were making it
impossible for rescue vehicles to get to the
scene. To remedy the situation, Governor James
V. Allred ordered the Texas National Guard to
the scene to keep the roads to the site open.
Among those who converged on tiny New London was
a cub reporter, fresh from his university
schooling, who had just been assigned to the
Dallas bureau of United Press International
(UPI). The young man's name was Walter Cronkite.
Cronkite was one of the first reporters to reach
the scene, having been dispatched as soon as he
received confirmation of an advisory from the
Houston bureau that a major story was breaking
in New London. He got his first inkling of how
bad the incident was when he saw a large number
of cars lined up outside the funeral home in
To make sure that he could get to the site,
Cronkite hitched a ride on a fire department
searchlight truck that had just arrived from
Beaumont, Texas. When he finally reached the
scene, it was dark and raining. Floodlights were
being set up, casting long shadows from the big
oil field cranes that had been brought in to
help remove the rubble. Workers were climbing up
and down the piles of debris like ants,
instinctively going about their grim task.
From the perspective of a news reporter, this
was a tragedy of epic proportions. The UPI team
that eventually joined Cronkite set up a news
bureau in the Western Union office in nearby
Overton, and, for 4 days, Cronkite used his car
for what little sleep he could catch. He called
CBS Radio in New York City from a pay phone to
describe the events, and they put him directly
on the air each time he called.
Thus began his career, one that would eventually
include his Emmy Award-winning role as anchorman
for the CBS Evening News. Decades later, as his
life in the public eye was winding down,
Cronkite said, "I did nothing in my studies nor
in my life to prepare me for a story of the
magnitude of that New London tragedy, nor has
any story since that awful day equaled it."5
1 Cole, Peggy, "New London School Explosion,"
Junior Historian, Henderson High School, May
2 Harris, Martha, "Saw Children Blown Out
Through Top of Building," Boston Daily Globe,
March 19, 1937
3 Associated Press, "425 Bodies Found," Boston
Evening Globe, March 19, 1937
4 Cole, Peggy, "New London School Explosion,"
Junior Historian, Henderson High School, May
5 "New London Tragedy Recalled by Cronkite,"
Tyler Courier-Times, Tyler, Texas, March 18,