Proud of East Texas: New London school disaster survivor

EAST TEXAS (KLTV) - It may never be known exactly how many people were killed in the New London school disaster of March 18, 1937.

Otis Bryan was an eleven-year-old, 5th grader sitting in Mrs. Nelson's art class waiting for the bell to ring.

"It happened about 3:18 in the evening. A few more minutes, we would have been out of school," says Bryan.

The New London school was one of the richest in America because of a recent oil discovery in Rusk County. But that day, what had been considered a blessing was to be a curse for the New London school.

A spark from a shop sander ignited a vast pool of natural gas collected beneath the school building. The huge blast leveled the structure and killed more than three hundred people, mostly children.

Although the blast could be heard for miles, Bryan says he didn't hear anything.

"When it blew, I didn't hear nothing, just looked like you couldn't see," says Bryan.

He says everything just went black from the debris swirling in the air.

"But I knew where the front door was, knew where the hall was, and I knew where the steps was. I took off and that's how I got out of there," recalls Bryan. "I run all the way home, about a mile or a little over."

"It wiped out just about all, 9 or 10, of my little ol' kids I run with," says Bryan.

At the time, Bryan didn't know what had happened. He just knew it was bad and he was scared. Looking back at old photographs, it seems impossible that Bryan could have cleared the back steps of the school. He just knows he did and he never stopped running until he got home.

"I got a lot of glass in me, little concrete balls and stuff got in me," says Bryan.

As parents searched for their children, often digging with their bare hands, the injured were taken to Mother Frances Hospital in Tyler, which opened a day early because of the tragedy.

"They didn't know for a long time how many were killed," recalls Bryan.

At the age of 91, Otis Bryan has lived a long, full life, fighting for his country, raising a family and making a living in the oil and gas industry, which in his life has proved to be both a blessing and a curse.

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