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

March 18, 2019

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:

This is an encore post.
Yes, this is an encore post. Defeating ignorance takes patience and perseverance.

Remembering Barbara Jordan on her birthday

February 21, 2019

Barbara Jordan would have been 83 today.

Barbara Jordan statue intended for the campus of the University of Texas, Austin Chronicle photo
Design model for a statue of Barbara Jordan for the University of Texas. Sculpture by Bruce Wolfe; the installed statue is in bronze. I like this plaster model, too.

(Thanks to Pam for alerting me to the anniversary, back in 2008.)

In her stirring keynote address at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, held in New York City in Madison Square Garden, Jordan said:

A government is invigorated when each of us is willing to participate in shaping the future of this nation.

In this election year we must define the common good and begin again to shape a common good and begin again to shape a common future. Let each person do his or her part. If one citizen is unwilling to participate, all of us are going to suffer. For the American idea, though it is shared by all of us, is realized in each one of us.

I covered that convention as a stringer for a western television station. I recall the spirit in the hall when Jordan spoke, and the great spirit that enveloped the entire convention and the City of New York. After the convention every night the cops would stop taxis so delegates could ride. I remember watching two cops help a woman out of a wheel chair and into a cab, and the cabbie saying that the cops had never done that before — and he liked it. Jimmy Carter came out of that convention, and won the election, defeating Gerald Ford.

43 years ago. In 2008 I wrote: “Barbara Jordan didn’t live to see her party come up with a woman and an African American man as the top two candidates for the nomination. That’s too bad. She could have given a great, appropriate speech. Maybe the Dems oughtta just run a film of Jordan from 1976.”

Barack Obama won that election in 2008, and Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination in 2016. Jordan didn’t live to see that, either.

In 2019, we face a Constitutional crisis again, with a crook in the White House hoping Americans forget about the Constitution. If ever we needed ghosts to come back to help us, we need the ghost of Barbara Jordan now. We could just run a film of her speech at the House Judiciary Committee markup of the articles of impeachment for Richard Nixon.

Also:

This is an encore post.
Yes, this is an encore post, with some editing. Defeating ignorance takes patience and perseverance.

New Beto ad features Willie Nelson, appropriately, “On the Road Again”

November 5, 2018

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s campaign for the U.S. Senate features travel prominently. Beto’s started out with a listening tour of all 254 Texas counties — something no other politician I can find has done — and continues with visits to every odd corner of the state. Beto’s been on the road constantly for almost two years.

It shows in his rallies, which tend to bring in hundreds where others get a few dozen, and thousands where others may have got a hundred.

To Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” Beto O’Rourke.


Street art in Austin: Super Beto

October 25, 2018

“Beto for Texas,” street mural by Chris Rogers, in East Austin. The Hill, via Brains and Eggs.

Brains and Eggs quoted The Hill:

Artist Chris Rogers has been at work on the mural for weeks, according to progress documented on his Instagram, but he put the finishing touches on it just as early voting began in the state.

The mural, located in East Austin, features O’Rourke, a rising Democratic star, standing in front of a Texas flag with his shirt unbuttoned to reveal a “B” emblem, reminiscent of Superman’s “S.”

“Out of the darkness comes the light,” Rogers wrote of the mural, which is entitled “Beto For Texas.”

Rogers said that the mural took 40 hours to paint, according to Austin Monthly.

Does street art drive votes? Ask yourself this: Do you think anyone painted any mural in any town in Texas for Ted Cruz?

 


Perils of self-publishing, a book lovers’ event!

April 19, 2018

Poster on the event!

Poster on the event! “Joys and Perils of Self-Publishing,” April 26, 6:00 p.m., Half-Price Books at Northwest Highway in Dallas (the Mother Ship). Bob Reitz and Gardner Smith.

Bob Reitz is the curator of the Jack Harbin Museum at Camp Wisdom, one of the finest museums of Scout materials in the country, focused on Scouting in the Circle 10 Council BSA (Dallas and surrounding counties). He and Gardner Smith trek and travel about Texas and the West, and for a time published a series of exquisite books, string bound, fancy paper, and extraordinary content. Great reads.

This presentation is probably a good one for authors, publishers, book lovers, poetry lovers and travelers.

I wonder if there is CPE credit available — and for which professions?

Bob Reitz at an earlier presentation

Bob Reitz at an earlier presentation, on Dallas history.


Proper etiquette for flying the Texas flag

January 26, 2018

Texas flag, the Lone Star. Texas Monthly image

Texas flag, the Lone Star. Texas Monthly image

Texas Monthly noted that the Texas Lone Star flag was adopted on January 25, 1839 — six years before Texas statehood.

Texas lore often claims the Texas flag has special rules that make it the best of all state flags. Mostly, that’s not true. But Texas Monthly collected the rules in one place, and it’s worth a look if you deal with the Texas flag at all. Boy Scouts and others may want to make note that there are now rules on how to fold the Texas flag (essentially the same as folding the U.S. flag, but take a look to be sure you have it right).

Tip of the old scrub brush to Texas Monthly’s Twitter feed.


Annals of Global Warming: Mexican plums blooming early in Dallas

February 17, 2017

Spring comes a few hours earlier every year as the planet warms; plants that used to blossom in March and April, now blossom in February. Mexican plum blossoms in Dallas, Texas, February 17, 2017. Photo by Ed Darrell, please share with attribution

Spring comes a few hours earlier every year as the planet warms; plants that used to blossom in March and April, now blossom in February. Mexican plum blossoms in Dallas, Texas, February 17, 2017. Photo by Ed Darrell, iPhone 6; please share with attribution.

Spring comes earlier every year in Dallas. Our Mexican plums used to blossom in March and April; for the past three years, we’ve had blossoms well before spring even comes. Last year we had a cold snap that took the young fruit out, after a premature blossoming.

It’s a sign of creeping global warming. Every year I marvel at Al Gore’s powers to convince our Mexican plum to blossom early, part of the “global warming conspiracy” so many fear.

That is, this is a symptom of global warming that cannot be faked, that is from observation, and not from models.

With flowers on fruit trees come hopes of a bountiful harvest. Dreading the underlying meaning of such an early blossom does not change our hopes, nor the birds’ hopes, for a good plum harvest.

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