Sonya Wheeler dug through the digital records, occasionally glancing into the pair of dark, placid eyes gazing silently from the corner of her computer monitor.
Inches away on the cemetery clerk’s desk at Kilgore City Hall, the same photo in hard-copy: a flourish of curly, raven-colored hair and the quiet eyes, only the barest hint of a smile captured in the old school picture.
At that point, the image was 80 years-old, faded even before it was scanned into pixels and posted to a online memorial to the victims of the New London School Explosion.
The girl in the photograph was just 12 when she died: Ola Christene Platt was one of about 300 victims killed when odorless natural gas leaked into a sprawling space beneath the campus and ignited minutes before school let out the afternoon of March 18, 1937.
Most of the victims were children. The accurate count is still unknown in what remains the deadliest school disaster in American history: the tragedy decimated the families of the oilfield, many of them packing up and fleeing the area as they mourned, burying their grief and leaving the pain behind.
Such was the case of the dark-haired, dark-eyed girl.
“I had noticed that we had three New London Explosion victims buried in the old City Cemetery on Memorial Street,” Wheeler said. Among those, one was a lonely grave: “She never had flowers. Curiosity got the better of me. I kind of felt sorry for this little girl that never had visitors.”
It touched a very personal chord for the cemetery clerk: one of the victims of the New London explosion was her great uncle. One of the survivors was her great aunt.
“That was always kind of special to me: we would frequent Overton Cemetery, where my uncle was buried,” Wheeler said.
There were few leads on the little girl’s survivors.
“Knowing the history of the explosion, I knew that more than likely her family was from another state – as were many families, because of the oil boom. It was very difficult for many of them to come to terms with what happened. It was hard being here. Many just packed up and left.”
Clues were sparse in the City of Kilgore’s records.
“The only information we had, which was typical of this era, was the name of the child and the initials of her parents,” Mr. & Mrs. E.D. Platt. “There were four spaces purchased, but only one was occupied, that of Ola Platt.”
The name quickly yielded a picture, however, thanks to the ongoing efforts of the volunteers and survivors dedicated to preserving the school’s story. Logging on to the online portal for the New London School Disaster, nlsd.net, Wheeler found the girl’s picture, which is also included in the exhibits of the New London Museum.
“She was a beautiful little girl, dark curly hair. I was so drawn to her. My heart ached at what her family had been through.”
Wheeler put the girl’s photo on her computer desktop and printed a copy for her desk as well – constant reminders of the task.
“I was going to find her family, one way or the other. Even if they were all deceased, that would be OK, at least I would know where they were.”
Wheeler’s long had a special connection to cemeteries, not just as the final resting place of loved ones.
“I really have a heart for people. When you lose someone, it doesn’t matter if it’s a friend or family member, someone who’s special to you, it leaves an impact,” Wheeler said. Her grandmother would take her to visit the graves of family members: “She would tell me that I needed to remember that every person there had a story. They might not have been a president, they might not have been a queen or a king, but their story was as important as anyone else’s.
“That always stuck with me.”
As of last week, she’s wrapped her time at City Hall, focusing on other work. Wheeler says Kilgore’s cemeteries will always be special to her.
“I felt like I was their guardian.”
Using her connections, cemetery resources and public information, Wheeler researched Platts in Texas who had the same initials as the girl’s parents. FindAGrave.com, its staffers and volunteers helped as well, but it was slow-going.
“For the longest time, I would hit one dead-end after another.”
The break-through came a year-and-a-half ago: as one family said ‘Goodbye’ to a loved one, Wheeler was able to connect them to their long lost relative in Kilgore.
“I finally came across an obituary from Louisiana of a Platt family member that had the grandparents’ initials that were the same as Ola’s parents,” Wheeler recalled. She found the woman’s picture: “She looked just like Ola.”
Reaching out to the woman’s survivors, the link was made: they’d heard the sad story of their young aunt.
“Her name was Ola, but everyone called her Christene,” Wheeler said. “After the explosion, her family just could not handle it. They just moved back to Louisiana and her name was rarely mentioned.”
The gravesites here had been purchased by the company that employed Christene’s father, E.D. Hers was the only space ever used.
“All this time, the family’s descendants never knew where she was buried. They only knew she had died in an explosion. I was able to reach out to the family, talk to them. They were all very excited that they finally knew where she was buried,” and her younger brother was able to visit for the first time: “They came out to the gravesite so that she could be remembered by the family.”
Survivors of the New London School Explosion and members of the victims’ families memorialize the event every other year: this year, flowers have been laid at the memorial cenotaph in New London near West Rusk High School, waiting on the next community remembrance in March 2019.
Learn more through the London Museum & Cafe, 10690 S. Main St. in New London. For more information, call 903-895-4602 or visit nlsd.net.