Senior editor Katy Vine talks about tracking down survivors of the New London school explosion and listening to their stories about that fateful day.
texasmonthly.com: When was the first time you heard this story, and what made you decide to write about it?
Katy Vine: I heard about the explosion almost ten years ago, but it didn’t hit me as a subject for Texas Monthly until I was in East Texas working on a story about the Kilgore Rangerettes (“Alive and Kicking,” September 2004). I was sitting in the bleachers with some former Rangerettes who told me about the incident, and as others within whispering distance began to chime in with anecdotes they had heard, I realized the explosion was still very much on the minds of people in the area.
texasmonthly.com: How did you find the survivors?
KV: I owe a tremendous debt to the London Museum, which sits directly across the road from the school campus. The volunteers were all incredibly helpful and provided me with a long list of people whom I might contact. I sent out about 180 letters and out of those I interviewed seventy survivors.
texasmonthly.com: What was it like to relive this day with seventy different people?
KV: It was a little bit like a journalistic version of a David Hockney photo-collage; you see the subject from many different angles. This effect was magnified in cases where the subjects who were sitting in the same classroom tell slightly different versions of a shared experience. I didn’t always realize this was happening until I began piecing the different stories together. But the most amazing thing to me about the memories was the similar chunks of time some had remembered and forgotten. Most people started right off telling me where they were when the blast occurred. But some remembered every single detail up to the moment they found a trusted adult, and right there the memories stop as if somebody had cut a videotape. The memories stay fuzzy between that time and three or four days after the blast.
texasmonthly.com: Bill Thompson’s fifty-year-long guilt over Ledell Carpenter’s sister Ethel struck me long after I read the piece. Is there one story that stuck out in your mind when you talked to these people?
KV: Fran VanAssen’s stories of meeting up with her father, and later her mother, both stick with me. And I think that’s because VanAssen tells this story from a child’s point of view, and in her recollection, she’s much tougher than her parents. Maybe she was in shock at the time, but regardless, it’s difficult for me to shake the images of a stoic child covered in blood and dust approaching her frantic parents.
texasmonthly.com: Have you been to the museum?
KV: I have visited the museum, and I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in this subject. The volunteers have collected loads of information on the disaster, and many survivors have donated items pertaining to that day: clothes they wore, books they owned, that type of thing. There are a few short movies, some audio clips, and many photographs. Anyone who can’t make it to the museum should visit the Web site at nlse.org.
texasmonthly.com: Texas started odorizing gas after this, but what about the rest of the nation?
KV: From what I understand, Texas was the first state to force odorization by law, and the rest of the country followed, though I’m not sure at what pace.
texasmonthly.com: How long did you spend getting interviews?
KV: I sent out my first letter in October of last year and finished in late December.
texasmonthly.com: You wrote the piece as a series of short quotes as opposed to a feature or a single extended interview. Why did you choose to write it in this way?
KV: The oral history format was the best way to get the most first-hand information into a limited amount of space. That was the bottom line. And, I liked the first-hand accounts better.
texasmonthly.com: Were there any stories, memories, or interviews that didn’t make it into the final piece? Why not?
KV: My first draft ran at about 26,500 words. So yes, many interviews didn’t make it into the final draft. I had to select anecdotes that were fairly detailed and naturally followed the chronology of the story. And it was hard; there were so many incredible stories.