NEW LONDON, Texas (KETK) – It’s known as the worst school tragedy in American history. A day in which one of East Texas’ proudest assets became its most deadly killing agent, leaving a tight-knit community with hundreds of dead to bury and several lifetimes worth of grief.
By 1932, the New London school in Rusk County was one of the richest rural school districts in the United States, a claim to fame brought on by boomtown prosperity. The steel-framed E-shaped school building was built for close to $1 million, holding up to 700 children and boasting a state-of-the-art manual training shop in its basement.
MARCH 18, 1937
March 18, 1937 was a Friday. Students were preparing for an interscholastic meet to be held the next day in Henderson. Inside the New London gymnasium, which was separate from the main school building, the local PTA was holding a meeting.
Less than 15 minutes before classes were to be dismissed for the weekend, roughly 300 lives were lost in a tragedy that would echo across the nation for decades.
An explosion ripped through the school, causing the roof to fall in and bury students and teachers in a mass of brick, steel and concrete debris. Walls collapsed, and the blast was felt up to 40 miles away. A two-ton slab of concrete was reportedly hurled 200 feet from the school.
People from all over rushed to help, running into the scene of one of our nation’s most horrific tragedies. Hundreds of injured students were pulled from the rubble by parents, nearby oilfield workers, volunteers and community members.
Survivors recounted that students who were able to make it to the schoolhouse roof jumped down into a net held by oilfield workers, who had fashioned nets from jumpers they wore.
Walter Cronkite, at that time a reporter for United Press in Dallas, was one of the first media members to reach the scene. In his book, “A Reporter’s Life,” he recalled people sorting through the rubble with their bare hands. They desperately searched for survivors while recovering bodies, parents and community members shouldering the unthinkable task of identifying the remains of the dead.
68 fifth graders, 87 sixth graders, 34 seventh graders, 31 eighth graders, 11 ninth graders, 16 tenth graders, 23 eleventh graders, 16 teachers and at least eight more people were confirmed to be killed in the explosion.
Decades later, Cronkite, having served as a war correspondent for World War II and Vietnam, would reportedly recount his experience at New London: “I did nothing in my studies nor in my life to prepare me for a story of the magnitude of that New London tragedy, nor has any story since that awful day equaled it.”
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
Archived for the world to see is the work of Bill Grigg Jr., the son of William Grigg Sr., a survivor of the explosion. His work was almost lost when he died, but was saved by Robert E. Hilliard, who created a new website and collected dozens of first-hand accounts from people who experienced the New London explosion and its aftermath.
You can visit his website by clicking this link. Below are excerpts of statements gathered from the web, with their full statements linked in their names.
Charles Henry Erikson and his brothers were on their way home at the time.
“We were facing the High School when the explosion happened. We saw the building lift up off its foundation then mushroom out and collapse. Bricks and parts of the school fell around us, but nothing hit us.”Charles Henry Erikson
Jimmie Robinson was in the explosion along with his sister, Elsie. He was in the third grade, she was in the fifth grade.
“All children in the next room to us were killed since the wall fell in on them. My sister never lost consciousness but I was completely covered by debris except for my hands. She proceeded to dig me out and stayed with me until someone picked me up and put me into a truck going to the Overton Hospital at which time we were separated.”Jimmie Robinson
O.J. Reed was on the scene as a rescuer and recounted the haunting events in clear detail. Reed’s great granddaughter, Linda Tiedt, shared a letter Reed wrote to his son.
“Some of the strangest things happened. While the crew worked, one boy spoke very clearly and said to workers, ‘be careful, for my life depends on how you take this off.’ They pried a great bulk of debris away and as they lifted it from the place, he was standing wedged into a corner and simply stepped out without having received a scratch! He had been there for ten hours and had not called for help a single time. I asked him to tell me about it. He said he had called to boys in the afternoon who told him how many were pinned under, and he made up his mind that so long as he saw no immediate danger he would wait his turn without speaking another word lest they turn and try to help him at the expense of others.”O.J. Reed
Howard Coleman was part of the volunteer rescue team. Years later, his granddaughter recalled him attending every anniversary ceremony in New London.
“I saw tough oil field men crying, but still tearing away at that rubble with their bare hands. Many of these men were my friends, many were working in a dazed condition hunting their own children. Some would ask. ‘Have you seen my little Johnny or my little Susie?’ You could only answer in the negative. Many of the bodies could only be identified by the clothing they wore.”Howard Coleman
Nelma Cummins Martinez was 6-years-old in 1937. She lost her sister and two cousins in the explosion, Marcella Cummins, Betty Mussetter Rider and Oliver Mussetter Rider. She recounts having nightmares for years after.
“There were parts of bodies lying were they had been blown. There were rows of bodies lying on the ground, some covered, some not. There were hysterical parents, relatives and survivors every where, it seemed.”Nelma Cummins Martinez
Community members, parents and nearby oilfield workers rushed to the scene. Within the hour, the governor had sent the Texas Rangers and highway patrol to help. Sources report that martial law was declared within five miles of the site, and lasted until March 22, 1937.
First responders from towns across East Texas, along with Boy Scouts, the American Legion, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, volunteers from the Humble Oil Company, Gulf Pipe Line, Sinclair and the International-Great Northern Railroad all helped work the scene.
Doctors and medical supplies from Nacogdoches, Wichita Falls, the U.S. Army Air Corps in Shreveport, Baylor Hospital and Scottish Rite Hospital were sent to New London to assist.
To care for the injured, Mother Frances in Tyler canceled its grand opening ceremonies, which were scheduled to take place the following day. The Texas Funeral Directors sent 25 embalmers.
Rescue operations continued throughout the night, with floodlights set up as an East Texas springtime storm rolled through. Within 17 hours, TSHA reports that all victims and debris were cleared from the site.
WHAT CAUSED THE EXPLOSION
It was later learned that an odorless gas had been pooling in the basement area all day prior to the explosion. Reports state that the explosion was ultimately sparked when a shop teacher turned on a sanding machine in the basement area, which was filled with gas.
But how did the gas leak even begin? Until January 1937, the school had received gas from United Gas Company. In an effort to save roughly $300 per month, school administrators approved plumbers to tap 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 Texas State Historical Association explained.
No school officials were found liable, though the superintendent, who lost a child in the explosion, was forced by public pressure to resign. More than 70 lawsuits were filed, but the few that made it to trial were dismissed by district judge Robert T. Brown for lack of evidence.
It was a “faulty connection” that allowed gas to accumulate under the building. At that time, natural gas was colorless and odorless, so there was no evidence of the gas leak, though some who were at the school on the day of the explosion reported watering eyes and lightheadedness prior to the disaster.
Now, the distinctive odor of rotten eggs is mixed into all gas for commercial and industrial use, so people may be warned by the smell. This is because of what happened in New London, Texas on March 18, 1937.
It is reported that, among the rubble that day, a blackboard was found with a teacher’s lesson: “Oil and natural gas are East Texas’ greatest mineral blessings. Without them this school would not be here and none of us would be here learning our lessons.”
86 YEARS LATER
A memorial to the victims of the explosion was set up in 1939, a 32-foot-high cenotaph standing on Highway 42.
“The sculptural block of Texas granite depicts twelve life-size figures, representing children coming to school, bringing gifts and handing in homework to two teachers,” sources say.
A historical marker was set up in 1989 by the state of Texas. The inscription reads:
“New London School Explosion on March 18, 1937, a massive explosion destroyed the New London Junior-Senior High School, instantly killing an estimated 296 students and teachers. The subsequent deaths of victims from injuries sustained that day brought the final death count to 311. The explosion was blamed on a natural gas leak beneath the school building. Within weeks of the disaster the Texas Legislature passed a law requiring an odor to be added to natural gas, which previously was odorless and therefore undetectable. This memorial to victims of the explosion was erected in 1939.”
The New London Museum and Cafe is still active today, a beloved community center keeping the memory alive. It is set up across the street from the site of the old school, founded by Mollie Ward, who is a survivor of the explosion.
A memorial service is set for Saturday at 2:15 p.m. on the 86th anniversary of the explosion.