The New London Texas School Explosion

The top of the London School cenotaph by sculp...

The top of the London School cenotaph by sculptor Matchett Herring Coe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was a nearly-inconceivable tragedy.

The New London School explosion has gotten relatively little coverage over the decades, in part because the traumatized community did not want to be put on display — and this was before exploitative news camps hounding victims to supply 24-7 coverage, so they were better able to refuse. Rather, it’s reported that rescue organizers told journalists helpers were needed more than news reports and recruited their aid. But it’s one of the most significant disasters you’ve never heard of.

The event is referenced briefly in Orphan Heirs & Shades of Night (a sequel to “And Only the Eyes of Children” first appearing in Fae). In short, an elementary school was blown to rubble during school hours.

At the time, natural gas was considered a waste material of drilling for oil and more valuable resources, and apparently it wasn’t uncommon for drilling companies to allow others to simply tap into their lines to take what the companies were going to burn off uselessly, anyway.

The school in New London, Texas, saved money by utilizing this free source of heat. Because the gas was “raw,” pressure varied constantly, straining the plumbing. H. Oram Smith of the Texas Inspection Bureau was reported to have concluded

that the oil field gas was more unstable than commercial gas. The pressure was hard to regulate. Teachers and students had tampered with the burners to adjust them and had jostled pipes connected to the radiators. In turn, he said this caused stress leaks in the pipe couplings below the floor. “No one individual was personally responsible,” he wrote. “It was the collective fault of average individuals, ignorant or indifferent to the precautionary measures, where they cannot, in their lack of knowledge, visualize a danger or a hazard.”

debris of the New London School explosion

the former school building, photo from http://nlsd.net

Ultimately, leaking natural gas filled the crawlspace which ran the full length of the school. Because natural gas is naturally odorless to humans, no one noticed the leaks and buildup. And then, on March 18, 1937, an electric switch was flipped which somehow sparked ignition of the entire unknown reservoir.

The event was one of Walter Cronkite’s first national stories. He described the horrific scene in his book, A Reporter’s Life.

We reached it just at dusk. Huge floodlights from the oil fields illuminated a great pile of rubble at which men and women tore with their bare hands. Many were workers from the oil fields, but among them were office workers and what appeared to be housewives. Many were parents, other volunteers, searching desperately for children still buried in the debris. Before they were through, they would bring 294 shattered, crushed bodies out of what had once been a two-story building, only four years old and considered one of the most up-to-date school structures in Texas.

Cronkite had a long reporting career which eventually included many war tragedies and the Nuremburg trials, but he said, “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.”

It is uncertain how many died, as many students were the children of transient oil workers and the removal of survivors and remains, a massive undertaking by hundreds of volunteers, was not well-documented. The most common estimate is just under 300, including 16 teachers.

“…there is evidence of a most terrific force in the great extent of devastation and loss of life that came almost instantly; testimony of bodies tossed 75 feet in the air; an automobile 200 feet distant crushed like an eggshell under a two-ton slab of concrete that had been hurled from the building,” Smith wrote. He said at the established point of origin of the blast the explosion had to “break through an 8-inch concrete floor slab before starting on its path of destruction.” — http://lessonsofthe1937texasschoolexplosion.blogspot.com/2012/02/odor-now-added-to-natural-gas-httpwww.html

After his inspection, Smith concluded,

“the value of a distinctive malodorant in all gas supply systems by which leaking gas may be readily detected is clearly evident.”

By May, the Texas Railroad Commission, a major body in regulation, had passed an order requiring artificial odor to be added to natural gas. Other states followed their example, and the requirement became federal law before the end of the year. The rotten-egg odor you associate today with natural gas is due to the addition of mercaptans.

cenotaph memorializing New London School explosionA granite cenotaph was erected in 1939, depicting 12 life-sized students in school life and including the names of those known to have died. There is one error: Noma Jewell Smith is listed on the monument as Naomi Jewell Smith, but she survived and died in 2000.

Very little of this background is included in my story; it comes up only because of a scene involving natural gas and of course Robin’s connection to children. But now you know what happened, and why the foul and obvious scent of natural gas is added to keep you safe.

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5 Comments

  1. Excellently written… and no, I hadn’t remembered hearing of this myself! How tragic. Thankful that the added-odor legislation came out of it to prevent addition tragedies.

  2. Pat Lefors Dawson

    Thank you for this article. I recently placed my mother’s scrapbook in acid free sleeves to preserve the many articles she saved after the tragedy.

  3. I have not posted any of them. After 75 years they are very fragile. Are you aware of the Memorial/Alumni Meeting that will be held on March 18, 2017, at the West Rusk School (formerly the London School)? The Museum has many of these articles on display.

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