We Will Not Forget
by June Hightower
January 26, 2001
This monthís Modern Heroes are a group of young
people who arenít famous or well known, but for
those who were nearby it is a group of young
people who will never be forgotten. It was a
normal school day in New London, Texas. The year
is 1937. There was not a school bell dismissing
classes that day because at 3:05pm the school at
New London exploded. The sound could be heard
for four and a half miles away and it hurled a
two-ton concrete slab 200 feet away where it
crushed a car. Of the 500 students at the
school, 298 of them were killed immediately --
only 130 escaped without serious injury. Most of
the senior class was gone.
Does any hero ever plan on being a hero?
For several days before the explosion there had
been a gas leak under the school. Some might ask
why no one smelled the gas. In 1937 and all of
the years before, there was no odor to natural
gas. As a result of this explosion there were
state laws passed that required the mixing of a
distinct odor with the natural gas product, so
that today we can be warned of the danger of a
Did the children go to school that morning with
the intent of becoming heroes? The answer is no.
Does any hero ever plan on being a hero?
Probably not. But because 298 children lost
their lives that day, millions of other children
no longer have to worry about the gas used in
their homes and schools because now we can smell
the gas, and for that I consider each and every
one of these children a hero.
We canít imagine what it must have been like
that day. Kenneth Wilson was only eight years
old at the time. His mom and dad took him to see
the school. His words should ring in our ears,
lest we ever forget. He said, "The sight of the
rubble that was left after the explosion burned
into a eight-year-old kidís head and Iíll never
forget it. This was in a small community and
almost wiped out an entire generation of its
Well, Mr. Wilson, we at Upstream Press promise
never to forget.
Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia
The New London School explosion occurred on
March 18, 1937, when a natural gas leak caused
an explosion, destroying the New London School
of the city of New London, Texas. The disaster
killed three hundred students and teachers.
In the mid-1930s, the Great Depression was in
full swing, but the New London school district
was one of the richest in the country. A 1930
oil find in Rusk County had boosted the local
economy, and educational spending grew with it.
The New London School was constructed at a cost
of $1 million (approx $13 million in 2003
dollars), a large structure built of steel and
concrete. The New London Wildcats (a play on the
term wildcatter for an oil prospector) played
football in the first stadium in the state with
The school was built on sloping ground, and a
large dead air space was contained beneath the
structure. The school board had overridden the
original architect's plans for a boiler and
steam distribution system, instead opting to
install 72 gas heaters throughout the building.
Early in 1937, the school board, in order to
save money, cancelled their natural gas
contract, and had plumbers install a tap into
Parade Gasoline Company's residue gas line. This
practice, while not explicitly authorized by
local oil companies, was widespread in the area.
The natural gas extracted with the oil was seen
as a waste product and was flared off. As there
was no value to the natural gas, the oil
companies turned a blind eye.
Thursday, March 18, 1937
Friday's classes had been cancelled to allow for
students to participate in Henderson's
Interscholastic Meet, a scholastic and athletic
competition. As per the school's normal
schedule, first through fourth grade students
had been let out early. A PTA meeting was being
held in the gymnasium, a separate structure
roughly 100 feet from the main building.
Unknown to anyone, natural gas had been leaking
from the tap on the residue line, building up in
the space under the school. Students had been
complaining of headaches for some time, but
little attention had been paid to it.
At 3:05 pm, "instructor of manual training"
Lemmie R. Butler turned on an electric sander.
The sanding machine's switch is believed to have
caused a spark that ignited the gas-air mixture.
Reports from witnesses state that the walls of
school bulged, and then the roof briefly lifted
off the building. The roof then crashed back
down and the building collapsed. A large
concrete block was thrown clear of the building
and crushed a car.
Estimates of the number dead vary from 298 to
319. Approximately 500 students and 40 teachers
were in the building at the time. Only about 130
escaped without serious injury.
The explosion was its own alarm, heard for
miles. The most immediate response was from
parents at the PTA meeting. Within minutes, area
residents began arriving. They began digging
through the rubble, many with their bare hands.
Roughnecks from the oil fields were released
from their jobs, and brought with them cutting
torches and heavy equipment needed to clear the
concrete and steel.
New London School bus driver Lonnie Barber was
engaged in ferrying his load of elementary
students to their homes, and his bus was within
sight of the school as it exploded. Barber
continued his two hour route, returning children
to their parents before rushing back to the
school to look for his four children that were
still there. His son Arden died, but the others
were among those that were not seriously
injured. Barber retired the next year.
Over the next few hours, aid poured in from
outside the area. Governor James Allred
dispatched Texas Rangers, highway patrol, and
the Texas National Guard. Thirty doctors, one
hundred nurses, and twenty five embalmers
arrived from Dallas. Airmen from Barksdale
Field, deputy sheriffs, and even Boy Scouts took
part in the rescue and recovery.
Rescuers worked through night and rain, and
seventeen hours later, the entire site had been
Mother Francis Hospital in nearby Tyler was
scheduled to open the next day, but the
dedication was cancelled and the hospital opened
Reporters arrived in the city, but found
themselves swept up in the rescue effort. Former
Dallas Times Herald executive editor Felix
McKnight, then a young AP reporter, recalled,
"We identified ourselves and were immediately
told that helpers were needed far more than
reporters." Walter Cronkite also found himself
in New London, on one of his first assignments
for United Press. Although Cronkite went on to
cover World War II and the Nuremberg trials, he
was quoted as saying decades later, "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."
Classes resumed ten days later in tents.
A new New London School was built on the
property behind the location of the destroyed
school. Since 1995, the school has been known as
West Rusk Consolidated High School. A large
granite monument now marks the site of the old
Experts from the United States Bureau of Mines
concluded that the connection to the residue gas
line had been faulty. The faulty connection had
allowed the gas to leak into the school, and
since natural gas is invisible and has no
inherent odor, this leak was not noticed.
In an effort to reduce the damage of future
leaks, Texas began mandating that thiols (mercaptans)
be added to natural gas. The strong odor of many
thiols makes any leak quickly detectable. The
practice quickly spread to the rest of the
Shortly after the disaster, the Texas
Legislature met in emergency session and enacted
the Engineering Registration Act (now rewritten
as the Texas Engineering Practice Act). Public
pressure was on the government to regulate the
practice of engineering due to the faulty
installation of the natural gas connection. The
use of the title "engineer" in Texas remains
legally restricted to those who have been
professionally certified by the state to
A lawsuit was brought against the school
district and the Parade Gasoline Company, but
the court ruled that neither could be held
responsible. However, Superintendent W.C. Shaw
was forced to resign amid talk of a lynching.
Shaw lost a son in the explosion.
The New London School explosion has received
little attention since. Explanations for this
are speculative, but most center around
residents' unwillingness to discuss the tragedy.
L.V. Barber said of his father Lonnie, "I can
remember newspaper people coming around every
now and then, asking him questions about that
day, but he never had much to say." Another
reason cited is the overshadowing effect of the
Hindenburg disaster, which happened two months
As of 2005, the New London School explosion is
the third deadliest disaster in the history of
Texas, after the Galveston Hurricane of 1900,
and the Texas City Disaster.
Carlton Stowers - Dallas Observer - "Today, a
NLSE.ORG web site
New London School explosion in the Handbook of
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