New London -- The New London school explosion
was 60 years ago, but many survivors say they
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
"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
And basically that was my story, except I did
see a lot of horrible things, bad things, things
ever, ever get over."
younger sister, sixth-grader Dorothy Shaw, was
killed. Her brothers were injured. She had a few
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
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
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
This article is reprinted by permission of her