Most high school history students don’t know about it. Most high school history students in Texas don’t know about it.
I wonder, sometimes, how many Texans remember at all.
I wonder, too, if there are lessons to be learned from the New London tragedy, while the nation debates what to do to prevent recurrences of school shootings.
No one in New London, Texas, bore ill-will towards children, or schools, or other New Londoners. Some good came of the disaster, but as we’ve seen, with animosity towards schools and school safety in Texas today, and a lackadaisical approach to dangerous substance control and accident prevention in West, Texas, and other places, lessons learned were not learned well.
The deadliest disaster ever to hit a public school in the U.S. struck on March 18, 1937, when a natural gas explosion destroyed the new school building at New London, Texas, killing about 300 people — 79 years ago today.
Noise from the blast alerted the town, and many people in the oilfields for many miles. Telephone and telegraph communication got word out. Oil companies dismissed their employees, with their tools, to assist rescue and recovery efforts. Notably, 20-year-old Walter Cronkite came to town to report the news for a wire service.
Investigation determined that a leak in a newly-installed tap into the waste gas pipe coming from nearby oil fields probably allowed natural gas to accumulate under the building. A spark from a sander started a fire in gas-filled air, and that in turn exploded the cavern under the school. School officials approved the tap to the waste gas line to save money. (Hello, Flint, Michigan!) Natural gas is odorless. One result of the disaster was a Texas law requiring all utility natural gas to be odorized with ethyl mercaptan.
Though the Great Depression still gripped the nation, wealth flowed in New London from oil extraction from nearby oil fields. The school district completed construction on a new building in 1939, just two years later — with a pink granite memorial cenotaph in front.
Today, disasters produce a wealth of litigation, tort suits trying to get money to make the injured whole, and to sting those at fault to change to prevent later disasters. In 1937 official work cut off such lawsuits.
Three days after the explosion, inquiries were held to determine the cause of the disaster. The state of Texas and the Bureau of Mines sent experts to the scene. Hearings were conducted. From these investigations, researchers learned that until January 18, 1937, the school had received its gas from the United Gas Company. To save gas expenses of $300 a month, plumbers, with the knowledge and approval of the school board and superintendent, had tapped a residue gas line of Parade Gasoline Company. School officials saw nothing wrong because the use of “green” or “wet” gas was a frequent money-saving practice for homes, schools, and churches in the oilfield. The researchers concluded that gas had escaped from a faulty connection and accumulated beneath the building. Green gas has no smell; no one knew it was accumulating beneath the building, although on other days there had been evidence of leaking gas. No school officials were found liable.
These findings brought a hostile reaction from many parents. More than seventy lawsuits were filed for damages. Few cases came to trial, however, and those that did were dismissed by district judge Robert T. Brown for lack of evidence. Public pressure forced the resignation of the superintendent, who had lost a son in the explosion. The most important result of the disaster was the passage of a state odorization law, which required that distinctive malodorants be mixed in all gas for commercial and industrial use so that people could be warned by the smell. The thirty surviving seniors at New London finished their year in temporary buildings while a new school was built on nearly the same site. The builders focused primarily on safety and secondarily on their desire to inspire students to a higher education. A cenotaph of Texas pink granite, designed by Donald S. Nelson, architect, and Herring Coe, sculptor, was erected in front of the new school in 1939. (Texas Handbook of History, Online, from the Texas State Historical Association)
Of about 500 students, more than 50% of them died. Once the new school and memorial were built, and the law passed requiring utilities to odorize natural gas so leaks could be detected earlier, survivors and rescuers rather shut down telling the history. A 1977 reunion of survivors was the first in 40 years.
Because of that scarring silence, the story slipped from the pages of most history books.
Trinity Mother Frances Hospital treated the victims; a 2012 film from the hospital offers one of the best short histories of the events available today.
New London, and the New London Museum, work to remember the dead and honor them. Work continues on a film about the disaster, perhaps for release in 2013:
Now, more than 75 years later, the London Museum, across the highway from where the original school was destroyed, keeps alive the memory of much of a generation who died on that terrible day.
This video was produced by Michael Brown Productions of Arlington, TX as a prelude to a feature documentary on the explosion and its aftermath which is planned for
the spring of 2013. . . .
What are the lessons of the New London Disaster? We learned to remember safety, when dealing with natural gas. A solution was found to alert people to the presence of otherwise-odorless, explosive gases, a solution now required by law throughout the U.S. Natural gas explosions decreased in number, and in damages and deaths. Wealthy schools districts, cutting corners, can create unintended, even disastrous and deadly consequences. Quick rebuilding covers the wounds, but does not heal them.
Remembering history takes work; history not remembered through the work of witnesses, victims and survivors, is quickly forgotten — to the detriment of history, and to the pain of the witnesses, victims and survivors.
- “The night lost children lay in the rain,” VentureGalleries.com, March 18, 2016
- Houston Public Radio, KUHF-FM profiled New London Mayor Mollie Ward in 2008; she was a survivor of the explosion
- One of the worst school disasters in American history… (karengausblog.wordpress.com)
- New London’s schools are now a part of the West Rusk County Consolidated ISD; the district keeps a memory page, but sadly, it has not been updated since 2012
- The Longview News-Journal, “With each New London memorial, explosion survivors grow fewer”
- In the Abilene Reporter-News, consulting engineer Steve Parks marks the date with a reminder of the costs of cutting corners
- The 2013 memorial gathering, reported by KLTV Channel 7, in East Texas
Houston’s KHOU-TV produced a short feature on the explosion in 2007: