NEW LONDON SCHOOL TRAGEDY
REMEMBERED SIXTY-FIVE YEARS LATER
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
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 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
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
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
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.
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.
PASTOR SEES SPIRITUAL LESSONS IN 'LONDON' MOVIE
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
"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
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.
CLOUD OF DUST
"Some of the survivors took years and years to
open up and talk about what they saw," Jones
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
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
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.
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
That's one reason the movie should be made, Mrs.
"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
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
"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
Another student who survived the blast told
Jones decades later he saw half his classroom
disappear in smoke and rubble, while his half
"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
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
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
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."