The Texas New London School Explosion of 1937

About the New London school explosion in 1937 caused by faultly gas lines, the history of the disaster and the aftermath.

THE NEW LONDON SCHOOL EXPLOSION

It was a typical spring day at the $1-million school deep in a unique forest of 10,000 oil derricks. Until midafternoon 700 or more students and faculty members toiled at education. Then the primary grades made their exodus homeward. A few minutes later, at 3:05 P.M., the beautiful New London school exploded. Roof and walls collapsed into a pile of rubble that covered 547 students and teachers.

When: At 3:05 P.M. on Thursday, March 18, 1937.

Where: New London, Tex.

The Loss: 297 dead and 250 injured. The school had cost $1 million.

The Cause: In January, 1937, school authorities initiated an unneeded economy drive. The school's gas bill for heating was running $250 plus a month, a sum that could be saved if the school switched to the use of "free" waste-gas. Although this gas was known to have an unstable ignition point, it was being used in businesses and homes around New London. There were no ill effects and the gas cost nothing. Each school classroom had its own radiator which should have been adjusted for the burning of the waste-gas, but in their eagerness to save money the school officials did not have this done. Workmen, experienced in converting existing systems to the use of waste-gas, were not consulted. Why bother when the school janitor could make the connection with the waste-gas line just as well? It was no big thing.

The Disaster: On March 18, 1937, as on every other school day, the primary grades were dismissed in the early afternoon. At 3:05, 10 minutes before the remainder of the students would be homeward bound, an accumulation of "raw, wet" waste-gas was ignited by a spark, perhaps from a light switch or static electricity. There was one tremendous explosion, followed by a series of smaller ones. The rumbling noise was heard for miles. In after-the-fact testimony, E. P. Schoch, University of Texas expert in the usage of combustible gases, explained that if any one of the school's main gas lines were allowed to remain open (i.e. flowing) for even half a day, the saturation point could create a potentially explosive condition.

All morning, through lunch, and into the afternoon, the airwaves around New London had been bombarded by the tiny, new radio station, located in the Piney Woods of east Texas, solely owned and operated by Ted Hudson. When the school explosion rocked the countryside, Hudson "closed the store," grabbed his portable broadcasting equipment, and lost no time covering the 12 mi. to New London.

On his arrival, the bodies of youngsters were scattered about in the debris of wood, plaster, and steel. On the spot, Hudson set up his equipment and began broadcasting: "The New London School has exploded. Children are dead. Doctors and nurses, ambulances and hearses are needed. . .coffins and strong men to dig graves." The response was immediate. Help poured into New London along with newsmen by the score, including a young broadcaster named Walter Cronkite. Into the night a grim search went on for the victims. Hospitals and mortuaries were soon filled and overflowing with the injured and dead.

Aftermath: For 3 days and nights doctors, nurses, hospital and mortuary staffs, and Ted Hudson and many like him, plus an army of other volunteers, worked round the clock. Counting from the moment the 1st victim was treated until the last body was recovered, the death toll was 297 and more than 250 had been injured.

In time, New London healed her wounds, and today the city boasts the safest, most modern school system in the nation. But the monument erected in memory of those who perished in the needless disaster will serve as a constant reminder of what Gov. James V. Allred termed the worst disaster in the history of education.

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