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  Tyler Morning Telegraph  
by Shauna Wonzer
March 16, 2002

At 3:17, minutes before school let out March 18, 1937, the New London School exploded, killing hundreds of Rusk County schoolchildren. (March 17, 2002)

NEW LONDON - Monday marks the 65th anniversary of what some have called the biggest tragedy to befall on East Texas.

At 3:17, minutes before school let out March 18, 1937, the New London School exploded, killing hundreds of Rusk County schoolchildren.

Investigators later determined the school explosion was caused by a mixture of volatile natural gas and air trapped in a pocket beneath the building.

The community's school, located in a thriving, affluent population of oilmen, farmers, ranchers and their families was forever changed.

Today, family and community members of those affected by the tragedy are working to expand the New London Museum, which opened in 1998 as a memorial to the victims and survivors of the explosion.

The museum is located across from West Rusk High School on Texas Highway 42 - the site of the old New London campus.

Mollie Ward, museum director and a survivor of the tragedy, is one of those working toward the expansion effort, which will nearly double the buildings' size.

The museum is a collection of the victims' belongings, supplies left from the school and news clippings. Ms. Ward said the expansion of exhibits would be ready sometime next year.

A gift shop, which opened last week, and a multiple-purpose room, are also in the works. The gift shop is connected to the tearoom, she said.

The educational/multiple-purpose room can be the site for club meetings and banquets, she said.

Piney Woods Freenet System donated two computers for the research room.

"It is going to be an asset to our museum. People can stop from traveling and get e-mail from home or do something on the computer," Ms. Ward said.

On the day of the 65th anniversary of the event, survivors are invited to take part in a conference Monday at Mother Frances Hospital, also celebrating its 65th anniversary.

The hospital opened one day earlier than planned to take care of victims of the explosion.

Father John Delendick, Chaplain of the Fire Department of New York City, who served at ground zero after the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers on Sept. 11 will speak at the event at Wisenbaker Conference Center, 800 E. Dawson St.

He is expected to speak of faith and hope in remembrance of victims of the New London disaster as well as those killed on Sept. 11, according to a statement from Trinity Mother Frances Health System.

Reprinted by permission of the author.
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  Tyler Morning Telegraph  

by Patrick Butler, Religion Editor
June 28, 2005

NEW LONDON - The drive is still alive to see a feature film shot in East Texas concerning the nation's worst school disaster, said a Rusk County pastor. A full-length movie centered around the London School gas explosion of 1937, written and promoted by two Longview men and to be produced by Angelic Entertainment of California, deserves to become a reality, he said.

"I tell everyone I meet that this movie is a good cause, and is proposed to be made by good people," said the Rev. Bob Jones, 75, former pastor of the London Baptist Church for 27 years.

Local film entrepreneur Jerry Long and screenwriter Ron Holloman, both of Longview, said, "It is very comforting and validating to see the Lord move and bring us a man of God like pastor Bob Jones who is on board praying for us and the 'London, Texas,' movie project."

The pair said they hope to see the film project coincide with a biennial memorial meeting for survivors, next scheduled to occur in March.

"It's important this film be made, and soon," Jones said. "People involved in this very significant national event are dying and with them the lessons they learned - and are still learning - from this tragedy in their lives. In four more years, most of them may be gone. It's a story involving their faith, fears and really the entire nation because the rich East Texas oil fields brought so many people here from all over the country during the Depression."

For decades, many of the people of New London - simply called "London" by many locals, said Bob Jones' wife, Frances - have internalized the pain of what they saw and heard on those days in 1937. At 3:18 p.m. on March 18, an odorless gas leak in the London School shop was ignited by a shop grinder, setting off an explosion that killed 296 children and teachers outright and could be felt in Tyler and Longview. The toll rose as people died from their injuries. The official toll was set at 425.


"Some of the survivors took years and years to open up and talk about what they saw," Jones said.

Like Molly Ward, who was 10 years old when she saw her school and best friend's life "go up in a cloud of dust" from her school bus parked just outside the building.

"We heard a muffled 'boom' that sounded like an oil well backfire, and we were used to those so we didn't know what had happened," she said on Tuesday. "When the building (collapsed) and the dust cloud went up, we were scared to death. A man came running out to us after a few minutes and told the driver, 'better get these few kids home, 'cause there ain't gonna be many more.' I was 10 and could not comprehend what was happening."

When little Molly got to her bus stop that day, there was a scene.

"There were about eight or nine moms waiting at the stop," she said, "and I was the only one that got off the bus. My momma started hugging and kissing me and the other moms were screaming and crying after their children, calling out their names, hoping they were on the bus. It was awful to hear those cries."

Her best friend, Geneva Jolly, 12, didn't come home that night.

"That's when it really hit me," Ms. Ward said. "I cried and cried and cried. My daddy worked three days and nights rescuing children and finding parts of blown-up children. It was so horrible for him to see that for years, when he would stop and rest, he would get the rigors and just shake. When he'd keep working, he'd be fine."
Destroyed school records will prevent the real casualty list from ever being known, she said.

"There were hundreds of 'transit' students that came in from the families coming to work in the oil fields," she said. "There were houses everywhere on back roads where they would live. Who knows whatever happened to them?"

In 1931, the "Black Giant," the oil wells of the Daisy Bradford fields, made the New London School one of the richest districts in the nation, Mrs. Jones said.

"There were 1,482 students enrolled in the 4-year-old school building the year before the explosion," she said.

The town's population was close to 10,000, Ms. Ward said.


Yet it wasn't until 1978 that a memorial service was finally held for the survivors, Jones said.

"Even then parents came to me and said, 'Pastor, please don't do this,'" Jones said. "The memories were still too painful, but it was the surviving children who were grateful for the memorial service. They'd suffered in silence and carried the grief of that very painful day for more than 40 years. It was agreed among the townspeople that no one would speak of the horrors they experienced."

"I can tell you when healing came in," Mrs. Ward said. "It was when I told my daughters about what happened that day. It just felt like a tremendous load lifted off my chest. I don't know what it was. It might have been the fear I experienced that day, and carried all those years."

That's one reason the movie should be made, Mrs. Jones said.

"Grief can be overcome with input from others," she said. "Sympathy, empathy, words of wisdom and comfort are all spiritual things that can help us move on," she said. "The word needs to get out that healing for any kind of tragedy is real."

Then there was the spiritual cohesiveness of the community, Jones said.

"This community was very close-knit back then, and remained so for decades afterwards," he said. "I've never experienced another community so close in my 50 years of ministry in Colorado, Wyoming, Minnesota and across the states."

Neighbors in Texas helped one another through all kinds of trouble back in the '30s, so it was natural for them to come right away when disaster struck, Jones said.

And those rescuers rallied to help their neighbors, bearing their burdens despite searing images that affected them deeply to this day, he said.

"People still have nightmares about what they saw, and I've counseled with them about it," he said. "In the room right above the shop where the explosion happened, 27 children were killed and all they found of them were little bits and pieces."

Another student who survived the blast told Jones decades later he saw half his classroom disappear in smoke and rubble, while his half survived.

"Holding in those kinds of experiences can make you physically ill," Jones said. "That boy was tormented by survivor's guilt for years and years, because his classmates died and he didn't."

But people are finally opening up about what they went through, some more than 65 years later, he said.

"They didn't know back then what we know today about grief counseling and talking through their troubles," he said. "They were taught, I think, not to speak about things that bothered them."

And that affected their daily lives, he said.

"There was woman in our church whose only daughter had died, and she just couldn't have anything to do with children anymore," he said. "Parents would not allow the names of their children be put on a monument that was erected in the memory of those who had died. It was just too painful."

But the faith, perseverance and willingness to share the grief was remarkable, Jones said. "The church was still a place of great comfort to them and the pastor of LBC, A.D. Sparkman, was a giant of a fellow, spiritually, and guided them through the tough times. He'd been a captain in the Spanish-American War and God just put him here at just the right time. The scene here was just like a battlefield, like a chaplain in the service would see."

Holloman, who wrote the screenplay for "London, Texas," said his story is ultimately uplifting.

"It will take you on a roller coaster ride of emotions, that's for sure, but the story is one of faith getting you through real-life situations," Holloman told the Tyler Morning Telegraph in March. "It's about real life and real faith."

And the stories of faith should be set on the silver screen for all to see, said Jones.

"It needs to happen," he said. "I know it will be a real blessing for all concerned who join in the making of this film."
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