New London’s 1937 school disaster, remembered on Twitter today

March 18, 2016

Bridge City resident Richard Schur's mother, Luna Louise Hudson, was a student at the New London School when it exploded on March 18, 1937. Hudson had missed school that day because she couldn't find one of her shoes, but her brother, Elisha, died in the explosion. Photo taken Wednesday 3/9/16 Ryan Pelham/The Enterprise

Bridge City resident Richard Schur’s mother, Luna Louise Hudson, was a student at the New London School when it exploded on March 18, 1937. Hudson had missed school that day because she couldn’t find one of her shoes, but her brother, Elisha, died in the explosion. Photo taken Wednesday 3/9/16 Ryan Pelham/The Enterprise, Beaumont, Texas

Some do work to keep the history alive. Good on them.

Have we learned? How do we explain the explosion in West, Texas? How do we explain the general lack of attention to school facilities nationally?

Did we forget?


Forgotten disasters in U.S. schools: March 18, 1937, New London, Texas, gas explosion

March 18, 2016

Most high school history students don’t know about it.  Most high school history students in Texas don’t know about it.

New London School, New London, Texas, before the 1937 disaster. Photo from the New London Museum

New London School, New London, Texas, before the 1937 disaster. Photo from the New London Museum

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.

The remains of the London School after the exp...

The remains of the London School after the explosion of March 18, 1937. Mother Frances Hospital archives

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.

New London School shortly after the March 18, 1937, explosion. Photo from the New London Museum.

New London School shortly after the March 18, 1937, explosion. Photo from the New London Museum.

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.  . . .

www.newlondonschool.org/museum

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.

New, New London School and granite cenotaph memorial to the victims of the 1937 explosion

New, New London School and granite cenotaph memorial to the victims of the 1937 explosion. Photo from Texas Bob Travels.

More:

Houston’s KHOU-TV produced a short feature on the explosion in 2007:

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.


August 24, 79 C.E.: Vesuvius spoke, with thunder

August 24, 2015

Much as the GOP Caucus and other climate-change deniers, Roman officials in Pompeii and Herculaneum refused to be alarmed at the ground shaking, and obvious eruptions from Mount Vesuvius, on August 24, 79 C.E.

In the past week we have earthquakes in California, Nepal, British Columbia, and other places. The old Earth keeps rumbling.

Oddly, we now pay more attention to earthquakes than to other things that can cause greater, rolling disasters.

Santayana’s Ghost wonders if we ever learn from history.

Vesuvius, asleep for now. National Geographic photo by Robert Clark

Vesuvius, asleep for now (2013). National Geographic photo by Robert Clark

More:

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.


Maybe Texas can learn from this: What about when life sends you blizzards?

May 28, 2015

What do you do when life gives you blizzards? Image from film by FableVision

What do you do when life gives you blizzards? Image from film by FableVision

Another piece from Peter H. Reynolds and Fablevision, perhaps appropriate to Texas waking up near the end of Memorial Day week, with acute floods history and being cleaned up, but flood waters working their way down the major Texas rivers, ready to ravage even more communities.

Is the drought gone, yet?

When Life Gives You Blizzards, from FableVision:

Uploaded on Dec 23, 2010

A short animation by Peter H. Reynolds and FableVision about a boy who makes the best of a stormy situation. Directed by John Lechner, sound design by Tony Lechner.


August 24, 79 C.E.: Vesuvius had something to say

August 24, 2014

Much as the GOP Caucus and other climate-change deniers, Roman officials in Pompeii and Herculaneum refused to be alarmed at the ground shaking, and obvious eruptions from Mount Vesuvius, on August 24, 79 C.E.

This morning we awake to news of earthquakes in Chile and California. The old Earth keeps rumbling.

Oddly, we now pay more attention to earthquakes than to other things that can cause greater, rolling disasters.

Santayana’s Ghost wonders if we ever learn from history.

Vesuvius, asleep for now. National Geographic photo by Robert Clark

Vesuvius, asleep for now. National Geographic photo by Robert Clark


Birth of hydrogen phobia: May 6, 1937, the Hindenberg crash

May 6, 2014

May 6, 2014, is the 77th anniversary of the Hindenberg tragedy. Docking at its station in New Jersey, after crossing the Atlantic, a spark ignited the aluminum-based paint on the airship, and the entire craft exploded into flame.

35 people died on the airship, and one on the ground — did you know a few survived? The Associated Press interviewed a man who was 8-years old that day, and a passenger on the airship.

Werner Doehner, an 8-year-old passenger aboard the Hindenburg, saw chairs fall across the dining room door his father had walked through moments before the disaster. He would never see his father alive again.

“Just instantly, the whole place was on fire,” said Doehner, of Parachute, Colo., who is the last surviving passenger. “My mother threw me out the window. She threw my brother out. Then she threw me, but I hit something and bounced back. She caught me and threw me the second time out. My sister was just too heavy for her. My mother jumped out and fractured her pelvis. Regardless of that, she managed to walk.”

Hindenberg on fire

Hindenberg on fire, May 6, 1937.

The disaster erroneously condemned hydrogen in the public’s mind. Despite widespread use of hydrogen gas for cooking and some transportation during World War II (including in the U.S.), use of hydrogen as a fuel beyond that has always faced the hurdle of the “Hindenberg Syndrome,” the fear that the gas would explode.

Is the fear justified?  Fact is that gasoline is much more volatile, more explosive, and generally more dangerous, than hydrogen.  We move, and use, millions of gallons of gasoline in the U.S. every day, worldwide very hour, bound by laws enforcing strict liability, in relative safety.  Most people don’t think about the explosive power of the few gallons of gasoline stored under the rear seat of their car, where the children ride.

What other technologies do we fear irrationally?  What technologies do we irrationally fail to fear so much as we should?

This is mostly an encore post.


Remembering the worst ever U.S. industrial accident, 1947: 576 dead at Texas City

April 16, 2014

April 16 marks the 67th anniversary of the Texas City Disaster.

It’s a day Texans, and all Americans should note.  It’s an event we need to remember, because every point of the disaster is something we forget at our very great peril.  Thinking such a disaster could not happen again, and failing to train for these same conditions, contributed to the disaster last year in West, Texas.

67 years ago, in the harbor at Texas City, a large cargo ship being loaded with tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire and exploded, setting fire to other nearby ships, one of which exploded, devastating much of the town. In all, 576 people died in Texas City on April 16 and 17, 1947.

View of Texas City from across the bay, in Galveston, April 16, 1947

View of Texas City from Galveston, across the bay, after the explosion of the French ship SS Grandchamp, April 16, 1947. Photo from International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1259

The incident also produced one of the most famous tort cases in U.S. history, Dalehite vs. United States, 346 U.S. 15 (1953). (Here is the Findlaw version, subscription may be required.)

The entire Texas City fire department was wiped out, 28 firefighters in all. The International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 1259 has a website dedicated to the history of the disaster, with a collection of some powerful photographs.

More below the fold. Read the rest of this entry »


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