Tragic Reminders

Rescuers did through the rubble of the New London School after a natural gas explosion ripped through the building in 1937 killing 295-plus students and teachers.

It was known as "the day a generation died," and continues to live on as a day survivors of the New London School explosion will never forget.

More than 290 people lost their lives when a natural gas explosion destroyed the New London school on March 18, 1937.

"There's two things I'll never forget, the first time I jumped from a plane as a paratrooper in World War II and the day of the explosion at the New Lon- don School," Don Maxwell said in 2011. "You don't forget things like that."

March 18 began like any other day in New London. School-aged children, many from transient oil field families who recently moved to the budding community to stake their claim on the East Texas Oilfield, walked together through the woods to get to school. Others waited on buses, which were actually converted tractor and trailer rigs.

While a large portion of the student body left the campus for an interscholastic activity in nearby Henderson, an estimated 600 teachers, students and other workers remained on the campus.

As daily activities continued, no one knew about the odorless and colorless gas vapors that filled an unoccupied crawl space below the school floor, until a spark from the high school's shop class ignited the fumes.

In an instant, the once calm sunny sky filled with debris as chunks of concrete the size of automobiles flew into the air from the force of the explosion.

Maxwell remembered watching helplessly as he stood in front of the elementary school waiting on the school bus.

"It was the end of the day and we were waiting for the bus when the explosion went off. They rushed us on to the buses and got us out of the area," he said.

Maxwell, like so many others, lost his sister during the explosion.

The force of the explosion lifted the roof off the school building before it crashed back down onto the collapsed rubble that moments earlier contained students who were working on class projects awaiting the final period bell.

Walking through the museum dedicated to the school's history, survivor H.G. White recalled a math problem he was working on moments before the blast.

"It was a multiplication problem I didn't understand," White said. "I remember walking up to the teacher's desk to get help with the problem. She showed me what type of problem it was so I walked past to my desk.

"I remember sitting down and looking out the window. I think something must have caught my eye," he continued. "But then it felt like something pushed me. It was the concussion of the blast and everything in the room went black."

White said he was buried up to his neck in debris and a white powder that filled the room and made those who were still able to walk look like ghosts as they stumbled around in the rubble.

"I remember hearing a lady scream when she saw me. When she realized I was alive, she came and tried to pull me out, but she fell in and got stuck herself."

White said 32 students were in his classroom that day. Only eight made it out alive.

With hundreds of victims needing treatment, patients were taken to a number of hospitals across East Texas including the newly-constructed Mother Frances Hospital in Tyler, which was not scheduled to open for another week.

Once freed from the rubble, White remembered walking down the road and having a lady pick him up and take him to a local doctor who treated his injuries as he sat on the front porch.

As parents searched for their children, identifying the bodies became a problem as many children did not have identification information.

"Parents had to remember what their children were wearing to school that day," said White, whose red plaid shirt, khaki pants and leather boots sit on display in the New London Museum. "While I was getting my head stitched up three miles down the road, my family was at the school looking for my body. There was another boy there that day with a red plaid shirt and khaki pants. My dad saw his body and directed my mother away from him because he didn't want her to see it.

"He said he went over and scratched the bottom of the boy's boot with his thumb," White added. "The boy was wearing new boots. My father then knew it wasn't me because he had just had my boots half-soled."

News of the tragedy spread quickly, partly due to the reports shared by a young East Texas journalist named Walter Cronkite. Later in life, Cronkite would report on famous World War II battles, Vietnam, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon.

As news of the explosion spread, letters of support began to pour in from everywhere. Telegrams from heads of state around the world showed the vastness of the event's impact. The small East Texas oil town even received a telegram from the German Chancellor Adolf Hitler.

"This letter is from Japan," White said as he pointed to a handwritten scroll hanging on a wall of condolences in the museum. "We've had that on display in here for many years. But a few years ago, we had a group of Japanese tourists come through. They saw the letter and were very puzzled. They couldn't figure out what it meant. Then one of them explained to us that the letter was upside-down. I don't know how long it had been like that, and since I don't speak Japanese I don't know if it's ever been fixed."

An investigation into the explosion removed all blame for the blast, stating no one could have known the odorless gas was present.

Survivors of the explosion went to Austin to speak with state legislators about the incident and encourage the passage of a law that required an unpleasant odor (mercaptan) be added to the gas to alert people to its presence.

Decades have passed since the blast, but memories of lost family members still bring tears to the eyes of those who lived through the event.

A marble monument bearing the names of the 293 known victims now stands in front of the West Rusk High School as a reminder of the day a generation died.

Maxwell said he is proud of the museum and that the group gathers to remember the explosion that claimed the life of his 17-year-old sister Blondell Maxwell.

"It's hard to bring up [the memories of the explosion], but it's good to remember not to put gas near buildings without a smell in it."

<b><i>KNH Archive Story by AARON MAY</b></i>

Kilgore News Herald

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