It is considered the worst school disaster in U.S. history. On Thursday, March 18, 1937, at 3:17 in the afternoon, some seven hundred students and forty teachers were inside the high school in New London, about 25 miles southeast of Tyler, when natural gas that had been leaking into the classrooms from the basement ignited, leveling the structure with a force that could be felt for at least four miles in every direction.
Poverty-stricken families who had flooded the area’s oil fields during the Great Depression had been proud to send their children to one of the wealthiest rural school districts in the nation. Its taxable value in 1937 had grown to $20 million, and additional revenue from fifteen oil wells on district property contributed to top-notch facilities on a 21-acre campus that included an elementary building, a gymnasium, and even a lighted football field. But the crown jewel belonged to children in fifth through eleventh grade (“senior year” at that time): the $300,000 two-story junior and senior high school, an E-shaped building fully equipped with a chemistry lab, an auditorium with a balcony, and an industrial-arts workshop.
On that fateful day, thirteen minutes before the final class was dismissed, a spark from some equipment in the workshop triggered an explosion that ripped through the building, killing approximately three hundred students and teachers. Survivors wandered the grounds only to discover they had lost classmates and relatives, and frantic parents were handed the horrific task of identifying the mangled remains of the dead.
While investigations exonerated all parties of blame, stating that no one could have known that the odorless gas had been accumulating, some parents were furious to learn that the school had canceled its natural gas contract to tap into a free residue gas line, a widespread practice at the time. But when the faulty connection leaked, the results were lethal. The Legislature’s swift passage of a bill requiring the odorization of natural gas provided little comfort to grieving families in the town of one thousand people, and few spoke of the grim incident until 1977, when a reunion broke the four-decade-long silence. On this seventieth anniversary of the explosion, we asked survivors to share their memories.
Bill Thompson was in the fifth grade. He still lives in New London: I remember the morning of Thursday the eighteenth being a fairly cool spring morning. It was nice, sunshiny. The PTA, which usually met in the auditorium in the junior-senior high school building, moved out to the gymnasium, which was separate from the school. Normally we would have gotten out early because of that meeting, but just before the last-period bell rang, it was announced that we’d go ahead with our regular dismissal time: three-thirty. In that last class of the day, I asked a student to change seats with me so I could flirt with a little girl in front of her.
Reba Moseley (whose maiden name was Richardson) was in the ninth grade. She now lives in El Paso: Some of my friends and I were complaining that our eyes were stinging that morning. I thought it was just me, because my glasses sometimes bothered me.
Robert Hatfield was in the fifth grade. He now lives in Amite, Louisiana: I didn’t want to go to school that day, but I asked my mother if I could stay home and she said no. So I started on, got ready, walked out of the door, then turned around and went back inside. I said, “Can I come home at study period?” And she said no. So I went off to school, and I was nervous all day. I just didn’t want to be there. In the next-to-last period I was in math class, and I told the boy behind me that I was going home. I asked the teacher, and she didn’t care. I asked the principal, Mr. [Felton] Waggoner, if I could go home instead of going to study hall. He said, “Okay, as long as you get your lessons.” So I started home. I didn’t live but half a mile from the school. Just before I got to the house, I saw my mother come out the front door. Since she had told me not to come home early, I was fixing to get tore up. We were standing about ten feet apart when the school blew up.
W. G. “Bud” Watson was in the eighth grade. He now lives in Kingwood: I was in shop class, which was on the first floor, with about thirty other boys. It was getting close to quitting time, and I was doing some welding in the front of the room when our teacher, Lemmie Butler, must have pulled an electrical switch to get a machine to work. Next thing I knew, I was picking myself up outside of the building. I don’t remember flying out the window, but the building was still coming down.
William Follis was in the seventh grade. He now lives in Nashville: I was sitting in the next-to-the-last seat in the back of class, and the teacher called me up to the front. She said, “Get up here! Hurry up!” I said, “What did I do?” She repeated, “Get up here!” So I started walking toward her. I had barely reached the teacher and sat down when the room went whoom! A blast came across straight horizontal. All these steel lockers that had been embedded in the wall blew kids out of their seats and fell on top of us.
H. G. White was in the fifth grade. He now lives in Lindale: I started turning my head to the left to look out the window, and then I heard a big boom. It felt like something hit me beside the head. Then it was dark. I was not unconscious; I was awake. But I was sitting in a hole and could barely make out moans and groans. Everything slowed down.
Ledell Carpenter (whose maiden name was Dorsey) was in the eighth grade.