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  Contributors  
     
  Abercrombie, Clotiele B.
Abercrombie, Loyd D. Sr.
Abercrombie, Virgie Blalock

Armstrong, John
Bain, Pamela
Bento, Lola
Box, Dorothy Womack
Campbell, Lu
Holbert, Pearl Shaw
Challis, James E. "Ike"
Cole, Beaver
Coleman, Howard
Cronkite, Walter
Degnan, Julie E.
Duch, Greg
Erikson, Charles Henry
Ezell, Alta Reigh
Farrell, Hal
Gregory, Doug
Grenley, Martha Rogers
Grigg, Horace
Grigg, William N.
Hannon, Bill
Harris, Howard
Johnson, Joe and Bobby
Kronjaeger, Jim
Lester, George
Lester, George - Playmates
Lummus, Darlene
Lummus, Don
Martinez, Nelma Cummins
Mayhew, Bessie
McAllister, Mark

Meissner, J. Raymond
Moody, Mildred
Motley, Pete
Nelson, Ron
Plant, Sally
Platton, Mike
Read, Osceola Jefferson
Robertson, William Judson
Robinson, Jimmie Jordan
Mack Thornton Rogers
Ryan, Terri Jo
Seacrist, Debra
Shaw, Marjorie
Stanley, Glenda G.
Taylor, Bob
Taylor, Jim
Thompson, Bill
Vail, Mary Lechtenberg
Vento, Eduardo
Vinson, Allen Earl
Vinson, Melvin
Williams, William B.
 
     
     
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  Dorothy Womack Box  
   
  Pearl Shaw Holbert  
   
  James E. "Ike" Challis  
     
     
 
 
  Survivors Discuss Memories of New London Explosion  
     
  by Sandy Warren (Date of article unknown.)  
  New London -- The New London school explosion was 60 years ago, but many survivors say they haven't been able to talk freely about their experience until recent years.

"We certainly didn't say where we were or what we were doing [at the time of the explosion] 'cause it was blocked out," said Dorothy Womack Box, 74, of Henderson, a survivor of the March 18, 1937, blast that killed nearly 300 people, most of them students. Investigators determined that natural gas had accumulated in a space under the school and was ignited by an electrical spark.

In 1977, the London Ex-Students and Memorial Association began sponsoring combination school reunions and memorial observance. "Parents objected to it," said Mrs. Box. "They said it [the explosion] was not [reason for] a celebration. To us it is a celebration of life." The 1977 reunion is being held this weekend in New London and Longview.

Eighth grader Pearl Shaw, now Pearl Shaw Holbert 75, of Longview, remembers that she was with her friend, Dorothy Rowan, now Dorothy Rowan Box, in the school library handing out books for library science credit.

"My first recollection was the floor under my feet began to move, and the next thing I remember, was Dorothy calling me and I didn't answer her 'cause the dust, the cement dust was so thick I couldn't get my breath and I couldn't answer ...." Mrs. Holbert said. "A light was coming through where the roof was .... so I climbed to the light and I could tell it was a way to get out and so I turned around and went back down the hold to look for Dorothy .... It was dark in there. We couldn't see, but we found one another and retraced our steps toward that light and came out on top of the building ....
"We could see that the school was gone when we got up there, but I really didn't realize what had happened," Mrs. Holbert said. " .... A man I didn't recognize walked up on tops of the bricks up against the building and told us to jump and he would catch us. By that time there were lots of people around.

And basically that was my story, except I did see a lot of horrible things, bad things, things you don't ever, ever get over."

Mrs. Holbert's younger sister, sixth-grader Dorothy Shaw, was killed. Her brothers were injured. She had a few scratches.

Students who made it to the school-house roof jumped down into makeshift nets held by oilfield workers. The workers had fashioned the nets from jumpers they wore.

Mrs. Box and Mrs. Holbert remember that they then went about looking for others, seeing lifeless bodies lined up, some recognizable, others not. "Principal [Felton] Waggoner was screaming and hollering, 'Where are my babies? Where are my babies?' He was clawing at the bricks," Mrs. Box said. Mr. Waggoner had been at a PTA meeting in the gymnasium. The elementary school was not damaged.

An unknown rescuer dug screaming fifth-grader James E. "Ike" Challis out of the rubble after the explosion. His head was plastered with blood, cement dust and other debris. His mother recognized his corduroy pants and cowboy boots.

"I had a concussion and I don't know how many skull fractures I had," Mr. Challis, now 70, said. "My head looked like a jigsaw puzzle. I couldn't get my hair cut short for years and years because all the scars would show." Today, Mr. Challis often gives presentations on the explosion to children. He and other survivors also volunteer to work in the London Museum and Tea Room across the highway from the site of the explosion.

After the explosion Mrs. Box's parents moved her to Talco to go to school. Her father had been transferred there to a new oilfield. However, she said, she wanted to finish the school year, and after a few weeks her parents allowed her to. She returned to a strained atmosphere where students avoided asking others about sisters or brothers because they might be dead.
One of the first people she met on her return was the student who was checking out a book from her when the explosion occurred.

"'I thought you were dead,'" she remembers him saying. "You didn't ask," she explains now. "If you missed them, you just assumed they were dead."

Counseling back then was virtually unheard of so there was no professional aid to help victims work through their trauma. Parents couldn't help because they, too, were traumatized. A few parents resented the survivors, Mrs. Holbert said. "The thing that helped us the most was being in school," Mrs. Holbert said. "They [teachers] were understanding but they kept us very busy with schoolwork .... We admired our teachers very much. They had been in it [the explosion], too.

Sandy Warren is a freelance writer who lives in Overton. One of her aunts was killed in the 1937 New London school explosion and her father, an uncle and another aunt survived.

February 2002: Sandy Warren passed away about a year ago.
This article is reprinted by permission of her mother.

 

 
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