A Look Back: 80 years after the New London school explosion

Published: Mar. 18, 2016 at 6:35 PM CDT|Updated: Mar. 14, 2017 at 6:19 PM CDT
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RUSK COUNTY, TX (KLTV) - The school day was almost over in New London, Texas on March 18, 1937. Students were inside the modern, steel-framed school building the community was so proud of, preparing for the next day's interscholastic meet in Henderson and gathering their belongings before going home for the day.

Manual arts teacher Lemmie R. Butler reached for the switch on a sanding machine, and, flipping it, changed the lives of families in the small Rusk County town forever...and unknowingly ended his own.

The school exploded. The sound of it was heard up to four miles away.

Unknown to Butler, odorless unrefined gas had leaked from a pipe under the school, filling the space underneath the building. A spark from that manual sander switch ignited the gas, lifting the building from its foundation and smashing it back down atop the children and adults still inside the building. A two-ton concrete slab was flung 200 feet away by the force of the blast, smashing down upon a car. The walls of the school collapsed, and the roof fell in. The victims were buried under a huge pile of steel, brick and concrete. To this day, it is the most catastrophic school disaster to occur in the history of the United States.

The community sprang into action. Parents rushed from around town to find their children. Oil field workers came with heavy equipment to remove the debris as quickly as possible, as they searched for survivors. Doctors rushed in from Baylor Hospital and Scottish Rite Hospital, as well as from the towns of Nacogdoches and Wichita Falls, and the US Army Air Corps at Barksdale Field in Shreveport.

Floodlights were set up as more volunteers poured in to help search for survivors, working through the rainy night, finding person after person under the debris. Of the 500 students and 40 teachers in the building that day, more than 290 are known to have died, including the teacher who had, unknowingly, set off the explosion. They were all accounted for within 17 hours.

See images here: Scenes from the New London School Catastrophe

The survivors were taken to Mother Frances Hospital in Tyler; the hospital's administrators canceled an elaborate dedication ceremony which had been planned for that day, instead opening immediately in order to care for the wounded.

The overwhelming number of bodies required help from outside to make preparation for funerals. The Texas Funeral Directors are reported to have sent 25 embalmers to assist with the task.

Three days after the horrible blast, the state of Texas and the Bureau of Mines sent experts to the site to determine the cause of the catastrophe. It was determined that the school board had approved the tapping of a line of natural, unrefined gas from the Parade Gas Company's line to save $300 a month in fees to the United Gas Company. This was not illegal, and in fact was a common practice among homeowners in that time.

However, one of the lines the plumbers had tapped had a leak, and the gas was able to fill the school on that dreadful day. Seventy lawsuits were filed for damages, but most did not come to trial, as District Judge Robert T. Brown dismissed most due to lack of evidence. The superintendent of schools, who himself had lost a son in the blast, was forced to resign under pressure from citizens in the school district.

The one good thing that emerged from the ashes of the tragedy is that the state of Texas passed an odorization law, which required that malodorants be mixed in all gas for commercial and industrial use so that people would smell that unique bad smell and know that there was a gas leak nearby.

The thirty surviving seniors finished their school year in the gym, 100 feet away from the disaster site, and eventually the New London School was rebuilt on the then-cleared site.

Reunions have been held over the years by students who were still living, and by descendants of those who were lost. They have told KLTV in interviews over the years that they were nearly forbidden to speak of the disaster in the years that followed.

"People were afraid to talk about it; almost no family in this community was unaffected, and whenever people would tell us about the explosion it would be sort of in whispers and don't say anything in front of so-and-so because they lost a sister," former New London student Judy Head-Susia told us back in 2007.

"This reunion has been significant to me because I have found more people this year who are willing to talk about it and tell me stories about my sister," said survivor John Davidson, who lost a 14-year-old sister in the blast.

Some people lost more than one family member in what is still the worst school disaster in history.

 "I had two aunts, two uncles in the explosion; then I had two cousins killed in the explosion. I didn't know much about the explosion 'cause nobody ever talked about it," said alumni Ronny Gaudet when he spoke with us in 2007.

But they come back each year so they don't forget. 

"If we don't keep their memories alive, the memories are going to die out," said Davidson. The reunions still occur every other year in New London.

New London now has a museum dedicated to keeping those memories alive. You can visit their website here for more information.

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