It was the worst school disaster in U.S. history. In March 1937 a gas leak in the basement of the 1,200-student Consolidated School in New London caused a massive explosion that killed almost 300 children and teachers. So chaotic was the scene that an exact count of the dead was impossible, although the tally of the injured was pegged at 184. In a grim irony, the blast was caused by a petroleum product that had greatly enriched the small town just east of Tyler. In the rubble, rescuers found a blackboard still bearing one teacher’s message for the day: “Oil and natural gas are East Texas’ greatest mineral blessings. Without them this school would not be here and none of us would be here learning our lessons.” On March 18, students in the first through fourth grades had been dismissed as usual at two-thirty. Shortly after three o’ clock, according to witnesses, “the ground bounced” and they saw “a giant cloud rising” and heard “a terrible roar.”
Hundreds of horrified relatives rushed to the school; some 1,500 oil workers helped clear debris, recover bodies, and search for survivors. Garages, churches, and even the roller rink were used as makeshift hospitals and morgues.
Thousands of people turned out to help, to gawk, to sell tombstones and insurance, and—in the case of a young Walter Cronkite—to cover the story. Governor James Allred declared martial law to regulate traffic and rescue efforts. The many messages of condolence included a telegram from Adolph Hitler.
Horror stories abound. One family lost all three children; one mother could positively identify her ten-year-old’s body only because the little girl, while playing dress-up the night before, had used a crayon to color her toenails red.
Critics leveled charges of negligence against the school’s officials, who had eliminated its monthly gas bill by tapping, with permission, into a Parade Gasoline Company line. Ultimately, though, federal investigators blamed a faulty connection and inadequate ventilation in the basement, where the flipping of an electrical switch in the shop room was believed to have ignited the gas.
Although dozens of grieving families filed lawsuits against the school district, a judge dismissed those that came to trial; no official was held liable and no fine was ever levied. Within two months, however, the Texas Legislature had passed a law requiring refiners to add a scent to natural gas, which is otherwise odor-free. Today, because of the familiar stink of a chemical called mercaptan, another tragedy like New London is far less likely to occur.