Public school gas explosion kills hundreds of children

London School Disaster

New London school after the explosion, showing the single story wing of classrooms gone.

NEW LONDON, TEXAS MARCH 19, 1937: There is nothing—absolutely nothing—that can prepare mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, or any of us who live in this tiny community for the grisly, bloody reality of 431 children—our children and our neighbor’s children—blown to eternity and crushed into oblivion by that monstrous school explosion, here yesterday.

431 of our young ones and at least 14 of their teachers—445 members of our families– all died in an instant at 3:05 PM, yesterday, just ten minutes before the end of school, in an explosive shock-wave, consuming fire, and hailing stones, apparently caused by a natural gas leak under our school.

The end of 445 lives came quickly.  But, the search for all their bodies will continue for days.

250 of our other children are hospitalized, in every hospital and clinic within a 50 mile radius.  Doctors and nurses from all over Texas have rushed to set up a temporary hospital in Overton.

It is heart-wrenching chaos difficult to witness, much less to describe.  Wailing cries of despair echoed unabated, as rain drenched the scene, and as a 1000 rescuers, parents, relatives, and medical people still claw through the muddy rubble, today, sobbing, searching, and hoping reality is wrong.

F. B. Doles, an oil field worker who knows a gas explosion when he sees one, saw the whole thing happen from a few blocks away.  He said flames shot out from the school, then a huge explosion, as the roof “rised up in the air and then come crashing down on the walls– crushing everything. Kids were blown plum out the windows. No doubt about it. It was gas.”

Miss Christine Beasley, a teacher, was in the school cafeteria behind the main school building when she was thrown to the ground by the blast. Bricks, mortar, and debris rained down on her, as she ran for what was left of the classrooms. She stumbled over bodies of children on the campus that had been pummeled by flying wreckage or hurled from their classes by sheer force.  Her vision blurred by blood and tears, she could only whisper to herself, “No, God, no. My God, no.”

London School

New London school before the explosion, showing a single story wing of classrooms

It will likely take weeks to figure out exactly what caused it all, but what is known is this:  Earlier this year, the school board canceled its natural gas contract with the gas company because it was costing $250 per month. So, the school board instructed plumbers to install a tap into Parade Gasoline’s residue natural gas pipeline to get natural gas for free.  Since there was no value to this natural gas run-off, Parade Gasoline didn’t care about the tap.  Somehow a gas leak apparently developed, and too much gas collected underneath the school.  Every oil field worker in the East Texas Oil Field around us knows, the slightest spark can ignite a gas fire and explosion.  They guard against it everyday. No one guarded our beloved children yesterday.

Update

The cause of this tragedy back in 1937 was, indeed, a gas leak.  The plumbers didn’t connect to the Parade gas residue pipeline correctly.  So, gas leaked into the 253 foot long crawl space under the school building.  A spark ignited the gas when a wood shop teacher turned on an electric sander.  His body was never found.

Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite

Eventually, the death count in the explosion was revised downward to about 300, but no one knows for sure how many died that day because some of the children belonged to itinerant oil field workers who didn’t bother to register their children in the school.  They simply moved on.

In 1937, natural gas was odorless and tasteless, so no one sensed the danger. But, because of this horrific event in New London, odorants, called thiols, were added to natural gas in Texas and the rest of the world, creating the strong odor that allows us, today, to recognize gas leaks quickly.

One of the first reporters on the scene of the explosion was a young cub reporter out of Dallas working for UPI named Walter Cronkite. Fifty years after this tragedy, Cronkite said nothing in his life prepared him “for a story of the magnitude of that New London tragedy, nor has any story (that he has covered) since that awful day equaled it.”  So, the New London School explosion is certainly one of our and one of Walter Cronkite’s difficult Southern Memories.

 

 

Universal Newsreel, 1937

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