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Fact On Energy Newsletter

Sara Mosle NLSD Book Deal 12/1999
The Lives Unlived in Newtown 12/2012
  NFPA Journal September-October 1993  
  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 building skyward.

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 Disaster
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 high school.

"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 the blast.

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 dismembered.

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 started falling.

"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 unbelievable calmness.

"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, please?'

"'Just a minute, sonny, we're coming,' we replied.

"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 conceive of."

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 died.

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 the bereaved.

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 Tyler.

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 1948

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 1948

5 "New London Tragedy Recalled by Cronkite," Tyler Courier-Times, Tyler, Texas, March 18, 1977

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  Texas Military Forces Museum  
  Texas National Guard

One of the most efficient and laudable services rendered by the Texas National Guard was in 1937. Martial law was declared during the New London disaster in Rusk County, due to a gas explosion at the New London High School, which caused the death and serious injury of several hundred students and teachers.

Twenty-two officers and 194 enlisted men, under Major Gaston S. Howard, assistant adjutant general, who was designated as martial law commander for the effected area, performed their duties in a very efficient and expeditious manner to the extent that the period of martial law lasted only from March 18 to March 22, 1937.
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