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Sara Mosle NLSD Book Deal 12/1999
The Lives Unlived in Newtown 12/2012
  Upstream Press  
  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? Probably not.

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 leak.

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 kids."

Well, Mr. Wilson, we at Upstream Press promise never to forget.
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  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 electric lights.

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 cleared.

Mother Francis Hospital in nearby Tyler was scheduled to open the next day, but the dedication was cancelled and the hospital opened immediately.

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 school.

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 world.

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 practice engineering.

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 later.

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 generation died."
NLSE.ORG web site
New London School explosion in the Handbook of Texas Online

This article is from Wikipedia. All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

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