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