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. She now lives in Kilgore: I heard a boom and a hissing sound, just like splintering wood. I jumped out of my seat and started a step or two. That was the last thing I remember for a while.
Juana Fay Toennis (whose maiden name was Beidleman) was in the sixth grade. She now lives in Houston: I went up—I could feel myself go up—and then the silt and cement and stuff came down around me and then I came down.
Margaret Nichols (whose maiden name was Siler) was in the seventh grade. She now lives in Bowie: I had a headache that day, and I had gone out to my uncle’s car to lie down in the backseat. I guess I was asleep when a boulder came through the front windshield. All of a sudden I was covered with dust.
Nathan Durham was in the eighth grade. He now lives in Pasadena: A concrete girder came smashing down on the table in the library, where I had been slunk down in a chair reading Moby Dick. I had gone to the principal’s office earlier that day to see if I could switch my last class to general science, and he turned me down, which was lucky for me. Everybody was killed in general science except one, who was crippled for life. As I sat there under the table, scrambling to pull my legs free, I still had the denial from the principal in my pocket. When I finally got my legs free and stood up, I remember seeing the study hall teacher; everybody loved her. She was calm and directed the kids out. “Don’t get excited,” she was saying. “Don’t worry.” The kids weren’t crying. They were in shock. They were walking down to the stairwell, where you went down to the first floor.
Dorothy Box (whose maiden name was Womack) was in the eighth grade. She now lives in Henderson: I was working in the library and checking out this book to a boy when the blast knocked me under a wood counter. Through the rubble, there was a hole about the size of a cantaloupe—just enough to get my head through. But I couldn’t get through there. It was just enough for me to see the light.
Ledell Carpenter: All that plaster and mortar formed a white haze, like a thick fog. While I couldn’t see my way around, I could hear people talking by the teacher’s desk. So I started stumbling over there, but I was walking on injured children, because I couldn’t see where I was going. I heard some girls by the window talking, so I walked over to them. Two of the pupils in my class were fixing to push another one out, but I thought it was too far for them to jump since we were on the second floor. I said, “Come back down! Somebody will find us and rescue us.”
“There was a deathly silence. Nothing. Like you were in a vacuum. then all the sounds started coming…”
Carolyn Frei (whose maiden name was Jones) was in the fifth grade. She now lives in Lewiston, Idaho: My teacher, Mrs. Sory, pushed Barbara Page and me out a classroom window and crawled through after us.
Barbara Page (whose maiden name was Moore) was in the fifth grade. She now lives in Weatherford: When Carolyn and I got outside, we just stood there. We didn’t know what to do. There was a deathly silence. Nothing. Like you were in a vacuum. Then all the sounds started coming—screaming, moaning—and people began to run all over.
Billie Mathews (whose maiden name was Bullock) was in the sixth grade. She now lives in Kingsville: I had been shielded by my desk, but it was covered with concrete boulders. One boy was screaming, “My leg’s cut off!” We had been in a classroom on the top level, but the whole floor was now ground level—or just about—when we landed. We didn’t remember feeling or hearing anything. We just woke up and there we were. One minute you’re listening to a book report, the next minute you’re stuck under a pile of debris.
Maxine Lawson (whose maiden name was Kelley) was in the sixth grade. She now lives in Caldwell: Billie was saying, “Maxine, help me out!” And I didn’t; I know I didn’t. She doesn’t remember that. All the people in the front of my room were killed: the girl reading the book report, the teacher. I guess the wall fell on them.
Dorothy Box: I could hear the sirens coming in, and I wondered if there was a fire. I could hear a student screaming, “Don’t go down the stairs!” There was a big boulder hanging over the stairwell about to come crashing down. I was yelling to my friend Pearl, who had been standing to my left, and she never answered me. I didn’t know at the time that she had cement dust in her mouth.
Charles Dial was in the sixth grade. He now lives in Houston: I had run home to get my band uniform and was just sitting down to put on my shoes when the school exploded. We heard explosions all the time from boilers in the oil field, but my mother said, “Something happened over there.” I said, “It’s probably one of those steam buildings blown up,” and she said, “It’s too loud. You get over there and see about your brothers. Get!” So I started off toward the school, and on the way I ran into my older brother, John, coming across the field. He was in rough shape. He said he was in shop class, and he asked the teacher to turn the band saw on, and when he opened the electrical box and pulled the switch, the electricity arced.
I told John to go home, that I’d find our brother Travis. I couldn’t believe what I saw when I got to the school. On the east wing there were a few bricks that didn’t get knocked down; on the south side there was a little of the building left. The rest was all gone. Flattened. The children were lying all over the ground.
Amos S. Etheredge was in the seventh grade. He now lives in Ridgecrest, California: Just before my brother jumped out a second-story window, a girl got caught on some glass and died. So he was careful not to touch the glass.
Martha “Peggy” Melton (whose maiden name was Harris) was in the eleventh grade. She now lives in Overton: I thought we had been bombed by Hitler. I crawled out from what used to be the ceiling and saw the children jumping out the windows. One was hanging on there and bleeding to death.
Marion Steen (whose maiden name was Walker) was in the eleventh grade. She now lives in Houston: I remember seeing a redheaded girl whose hair had turned the color of cement. She was lying outside. I don’t remember seeing anybody to talk to. The people I saw were dead. I was walking around and realized I still had a pencil in my hand, and I remember thinking, “What am I doing with my pencil?” I threw it down.
Reba Moseley: My friend Kay Challis and I crawled under the table in the library to where the wall should have been; it was blown out. We sat with our feet on the outside of the wall, surveying the area, and all the way up to the highway we couldn’t see anything but piles of debris.
Lucy Wells (whose maiden name was Eipper) was in the tenth grade. She now lives in Diboll: When I got out, I saw a body in a black suit, a teacher. He looked like a big doll that someone had dropped on the floor and was asleep. Then my brain began to work a little. I could see the building was gone. I knew that the body in front of me was dead. But it was all like a dream.
Betty P. McBride (whose maiden name was Harden) was in the seventh grade. She now lives in Austin: When I emerged from the building, I made my way toward the front, near the street. I saw a playmate’s body almost covered in concrete with a Popsicle still in her mouth. I went around a car that was upside down with the wheels spinning wildly. When I got to the front of what had been the school building, I saw a man crying and holding a little girl’s body, and as I walked along, I saw what looked like the child’s brain, which had fallen out of the back of her head.
H. G. White: Once I got out, I walked over to a water fountain in the gymnasium to wash off a cut above my left ear, and an older boy walked up with deep cuts on his face. A teacher threw some water on him, and he fell down and expired right there.
Max Holleyman was in the tenth grade. He now lives in Lakeland, Florida: I went down the stairway to where my sister’s room would have been, and there was a child who was breathing his last breath in the stairwell.
Nathan Durham: I worked my way over to the study hall, and kids were streaming out and down the stairs. Out the window I could see a good friend rolling over and over on the ground.
Barbara Page: The mothers and teachers who had convened for the PTA meeting started running out of the gym.
Juana Fay Toennis: When I finally got out, the first person I saw was my mother, who was president of the PTA. She was climbing over the wall to my classroom. She grabbed me and asked, “What happened?” and I said, “I have no idea.”
Ollie Wyatt (whose maiden name was Bullock) was in the third grade. She now lives in Austin: I had just finished performing a minuet in the gymnasium for the PTA and had walked up into the stands to sit down next to my mother when all of a sudden the building, which was wooden, started rocking back and forth. There were just a few doors in the whole gymnasium, and we all started rushing outside. My mother grabbed me and we kept going. We were rushing away from the building because it was still moving. I was standing near Mr. Waggoner when we finally realized what had happened. He put his hands over his face and said, “Oh, my God! It’s our children!” People were yelling, “The world is coming to an end!”
Nadine Dorsey (whose maiden name was Beasley) was in the seventh grade. She now lives in Kilgore: I never heard a sound. The teacher had been giving us her assignment up in the front of our second-story classroom, and all at once I looked up and stuff had fallen in on me. I don’t know how long I was unconscious. Some students who had been on the football field climbed up, and I could hear them talking. I yelled, “Get me out of here!” and they pulled up whatever was on top of me. But when we went to the door, it was blocked. The wall to the outside had fallen out, and Mr. Waggoner was standing down on the ground, below. He said, “Can you get out, Nadine?” And I said, “No, the door is blocked,” and he said, “Well, jump and I’ll catch you.” So I jumped.
“The rescue workers weren’t always checking to see if kids were live or dead. They were just getting them out.”
Within minutes, oil field workers began to arrive and dig through the rubble. By nightfall, as word of the disaster spread, at least two thousand workers were tearing apart the site as parents searched for their children.
William G. Moore Jr. was in the eleventh grade. He now lives in Franklin, Tennessee: Once I found my brother, Ira Joe, we started digging, trying to get to the kids who had been covered up. They’d say, “I’m over here!” and we’d dig in that area. We were already working before the oil field workers arrived.
Ira Joe Moore was in the tenth grade. He now lives in El Cajon, California: We’d carry the bodies to the buses and trucks that were parked nearby and lay them out on the seats. I don’t know what happened to them after that.
Ed Crudup was in the ninth grade. He now lives in Mesa, Arizona: After lunchtime I had decided to cut out of school and sit under a persimmon tree on a nearby hill. When I saw the explosion, I ran to search for my stepbrother. When I got to the room where I knew he’d be, steel beams were still holding up part of his room. I hollered in, and a few kids hollered back. I told them where I’d start clearing so they could start working to the same area and crawl out.
Charles Dial: It wasn’t very long till the oil field workers came. They started picking the kids up and lining them against the fence on the south side of the building. Ambulances and cars began picking them up and taking them to hospitals in the surrounding area, since New London had no hospital. Some of the ambulances were picking up dead children and taking them to temporary morgues.
Marjorie Kinney (whose maiden name was Bryan) was in the sixth grade. She now lives in Fort Worth: When the parents began to arrive, they took the buses and tied the horns down, turning them into sirens. That went on all night long.
William Follis: After I came to, several minutes after the blast, I started helping the rescue workers dig kids out. Right in front of me there were three little girls wedged together. They had mortar dust caked in their eyes and noses and mouths, and all we would have had to do to save them was reach down and pull the mud out. I knew the kids. One looked up and said, “Save me.” Thirty or forty men were trying to dig them out completely. I watched them die. Later on, outside, I spotted one of my best friends, who was still alive, but it looked like someone split his brains open with a hatchet. The rescue workers weren’t always checking to see if kids were live or dead. They were just getting them out. One girl was completely twisted around. The poor thing—she was trying to cover herself up because she was exposed. Everyone was working just like they were in a daze. Nobody said anything.
Mary Lou Moring (whose maiden name was Upchurch) was in the sixth grade. She now lives in Gladewater: I thought I had fallen asleep and was having a nightmare and that if I screamed, I’d wake myself up. Those sitting on the side and in front of me were killed. I’m sure being knocked under the desk was my protection. Someone pulled me out and placed me on the ground.
James Kennedy was in the sixth grade. He now lives in Kilgore: The rescue workers were moving toward me, and I couldn’t move anything but my eyes but I could breathe fine. We were all screaming for help. I heard Mary Lou screaming. When some men came into our area, I said, “Get her out first. I think she’s hurt worse than I am.”
Nadine Dorsey: I started wandering around, and Mother and Dad were already looking for me. I found my mother. She was standing in front of the building, crying. I had blood all over my face, and my hair was white. She didn’t recognize me. I walked up to her, and she looked at me and did a double take. I said, “Mother?” and she went into hysterics.
Mollie Ward (whose maiden name was Sealey) was in the fourth grade. She later founded the London Museum and became the mayor of New London, where she still lives: When I got home on the bus, there were about eight mothers at the stop. They started screaming, “Have you seen Geneva?” “Have you seen Brenda?” My mother came out and started hugging and kissing me. She carried me into the house because the mothers kept screaming. Six of them lost their child.
Fran VanAssen (whose maiden name was Begley) was in the fifth grade. She now lives in Fort Bragg, California: My throat was so dry from the dust I tried to get across the street to a lunch place where I thought I could get a drink, but the ambulances and cars were racing across so fast I couldn’t get over there. I sat down beside a car and leaned against a tire and watched the bakery and cattle trucks unload so they could help carry children to hospitals and morgues. It seemed like I sat there for an eternity. My dad had been looking for me in the room where I had class and found a girl with a foot hanging off who was wearing a dress that was similar to mine, but he noticed she had on black patent-leather shoes, and he knew mine were lace-ups. Finally, someone told him where I was waiting. He said that every step he took toward me seemed like I was taking two away from him.
Max Holleyman: My dad had found my sister. She was dead. He recognized her because the dress she was wearing and the socks she had on were material he had picked out for her twelfth birthday, which she’d just had.
Opal Hamill (whose maiden name was Barton) was in the ninth grade. She now lives in New Braunfels: Mr. Waggoner laid my dead brother at my feet. My brother was seventeen, almost eighteen. He was a beautiful boy. He was captain of the football team, co-captain of the basketball team. Mr. Waggoner didn’t say anything to me. I sat down beside my brother, and he wasn’t obviously hurt. All he had was a little round hole in his forehead, like maybe the point of a nail hit him. He always carried a handkerchief in his pocket, so I took it out and wiped the mortar dust off his face. I sat there too shocked to cry. Two ambulance drivers picked him up and strapped him to a stretcher, and I started following along behind them. Finally, I said, “Where are you taking him?” They said they were taking him to Longview [which was 26 miles away]. Now, I was a kid; Longview seemed awfully far. So I said, “No, that’s too far.” They didn’t argue. They lifted him off the stretcher and put him on the ground and went on to the next body.
Marjorie Kinney: There was one area by the fence for the dead and another area for the injured. My friend’s daddy picked her up and laid her with the ones who were dead, but she was only unconscious. I don’t know how she got up.
Bob Clayton was in the fifth grade. He now lives in Pittsburgh: When I finally came to, some guy pulled me out from under the lockers and said, “Sonny, where do you live?” I said, “Selman City. I have to catch the bus.” He said he’d carry me up to where the buses were, and he set me down and said, “Wait right here. I’ll get my car.” Then some other man saw me, and he could see my head was bruised up, and he put me in the front seat of an ambulance. In the back, kids were stacked up like wood. I was thinking about just taking the bus? I was half-crazy, I guess.
Lois Johnson (whose maiden name was Rainwater) was in the seventh grade. She now lives in Henderson: My dad was helping with the rescue effort, and one of our neighbors told him that she had seen me and that I was dead. He told her he didn’t doubt it. When he came home and saw me, he nearly dropped dead himself. He stood there with his mouth open. He said he wasn’t surprised at all to hear I was dead but more shocked to find out I wasn’t.
William Follis: The impact of the devastation didn’t hit me until I started riding my bike home, and I started bawling.
Fran VanAssen: My mother was standing out in the backyard, under a trellis over the gate, when she saw my dad’s car drive up. I got out and started going to her. I had blood all over me and was skinned on my right-hand side. My hair was snow-white from the plaster dust. I guess I looked a fright. She wouldn’t put her arms out. She kept saying, “That’s not my baby. That’s not her.”
“… everyone was operating on adrenaline.”
After nightfall, martial law was declared in a five-mile area around the school, and only doctors, nurses, peace officers, rescue workers, newsmen, and relatives of trapped children were allowed near the area, now lit up with floodlights.
Ira Joe Moore: It got cold as the devil, and it had started raining when some workers from the oil field finally brought the heavy-lifting equipment. I think everyone was dumbfounded; I don’t recall a lot of conversation. I think everyone was operating on adrenaline.
William G. Moore Jr.: There were big slabs that needed moving, but some you could handle with enough people. When we’d come across a child or a teacher, we’d try to get the rubble away from them and get help to get them out.
H. G. White: Most of the rubble was moved with bare hands, not machinery. A guy came by with a truckload of peach baskets, and the workers formed a line and passed the baskets filled with body parts and cement chunks.
Nathan Durham: My dad and I helped our neighbor put his injured daughter, Irma Hodges, in our car; then we took off for the Henderson hospital. Irma had been blown out with the main debris. I could tell her hip was broken because her legs were crooked, and she was unconscious but she was breathing. She died in her father’s lap in the rear seat of my dad’s car.
Ed Crudup: As soon as I got my stepbrother out of the rubble, I ran home and told my mom I was taking the car. I started picking up bodies and taking them to Henderson. I’d pull up and say, “I can take somebody to Henderson,” and they’d put a child or a teacher in the backseat. When I got to a hospital, I’d ask for help, and someone would take the body out and I would leave.
Martha Moore (whose maiden name was Leath) was in the eleventh grade. She now lives in Lufkin: My daddy had a country grocery store on the highway between Henderson and Kilgore, about six miles from New London. He carried food over to give to the Salvation Army, which was passing out anything people could hold.
Nathan Durham: We stopped at the hospital in Henderson and told everybody about the explosion. We were the first people from New London they had seen. Then we took Irma to a funeral home, and just as her father was making funeral arrangements, a fire truck pulled up, loaded down with the bodies of kids. Some men took the children off and began stacking them along the hall.
Ed Crudup: After a while, hospital staffers told me not to bring any more children; they were filled up. Since I didn’t know where else to take them, I quit taking bodies.
Mollie Ward: Sometime in the night a worker found a blackboard that had been on the wall that read “Oil and natural gas are East Texas’ greatest mineral blessing. Without them this school would not be here and none of us would be here learning our lessons.”
“Hospitals were the first place you looked.”
As hospitals in the nearby towns of Henderson, Kilgore, Jacksonville, Tyler, and Overton filled up, rescue workers set up medical and embalming stations all over the region. Because there were few telephones in the area, the Western Union office in Overton was responsible for dispatching most of the news of the disaster. By ten o’clock Thursday night, reporters from major media outlets had arrived. (Notable among these was a cub reporter with the Dallas bureau of the United Press Association, Walter Cronkite.) As the news spread around the world, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a statement asking for the Red Cross and all government agencies to render assistance, and world leaders, including Adolf Hitler, paid their respects via telegram.
Jean Pearson (whose maiden name was Farmer) was in the sixth grade. She now lives in Los Angeles: I got most of the news from the radio reports. The announcer would say, “A little girl with a red checkered dress about ten years old …,” and you’d hold your breath, because he’d either say she was at such-and-such hospital or such-and-such mortuary. It went on for days.
W. G. “Bud” Watson: Somebody had misidentified me as one of the dead, and that night they were calling out my name on the radio, saying I was in the Kilgore morgue.
Randall Rogers was in the fifth grade. He now lives in Bullard: I don’t remember anything until I woke up in the Overton hospital. I had a big cut on the top of my head, and my right arm and right leg had been crushed. My nose and face were caved in. I don’t know how they fixed me up. I must have stayed there a few weeks or more, so I didn’t know my brother had died until a good while after that.
Bob Clayton: I had an ice pack on my head. I wasn’t supposed to walk ever again. My reflexes were gone. I guess my brain was swollen. One guy in the hospital asked, “Is there anything you’d like to have?” and I said, “Yes, sir, I’d like to have a bicycle.” He said, “You get well and I’ll buy you that bike.” But the other hospital staffers told him that I wasn’t going to be able to use it.
Katherine Owen (whose maiden name was Yeldell) was in the tenth grade. She now lives in Henderson: A neighbor of mine took me to a doctor, who sewed up my busted lip. We didn’t realize at the time that I’d been whomper-jawed so badly on the inside that I’d never be able to have children.
Bill Thompson: I was in a ward-type room with several kids, and sometime in the night they moved me to a cot to make room for an unconscious boy who had jumped out of a window and suffered a broken neck. In the early part of the next morning he died.
Bob Clayton: Parents tracked blood on their shoes from one building to the next. Before I got to the Overton hospital, the rescue workers took me to a hotel that had been taking in injured children. They laid me on one of the many mattresses they had placed out on the patio as a sort of waiting room next to a little girl named Marie Beard. The doctors came around and said, “Let’s look at this boy,” and I said, “No, take her,” and they did. My mother heard about that later and thought I was brave, but I was scared of getting a shot.
Gloria Gay Henson (whose maiden name was Davis) was in the fifth grade. She now lives in Humble: I was in the Jacksonville hospital for 29 days. My forehead was cut deeply, split open, and pieces of the blackboard I had been sitting next to got in there. Pieces of granite and bone would work themselves out of my skin over the next few months. My nose was broken, and I couldn’t sing anymore without sounding like I was singing through my nose.
Mary Lou Moring: When I got home from the clinic in Overton, my dad asked, “Is there anything you want?” I told him, “I want pink shoes.” And he bought me pink patent-leather shoes. To this day, I think to myself, “They asked me what I wanted and that’s what I said?” I was a little girl, I guess.
Doris Morgan (whose maiden name was Shoemate) was in the seventh grade. She now lives in Freeport: I was with my parents, and we were looking in surrounding towns for my little sister. Hospitals were the first place you looked. Then morgues, where lines of people were going past children who were covered up with blankets.
William Follis: I was asked to go to Overton the next day to help identify bodies. Parents were walking through a makeshift morgue, trying to identify one-hundred-some students who were lying side by side covered with sheets. I saw fathers fight over dead children like dogs over a bone, yelling, “That’s mine!” “No, mine!” I saw children who looked like roadkill; you couldn’t tell if it was a boy, girl, or what. And when I came to my buddy, my best buddy—his head was flat as a newspaper. That’s when I lost it. I went home.
Charles Dial: On Friday night we found my brother Travis in Henderson. At first, I had identified the wrong kid, because we all wore blue overalls and the destruction had destroyed children’s features. Then my little sister brought me to another body and said, “No, this is him over here.” We reached into the coat pocket and found a cord that Travis had been using to play with a top. I was thirteen and a half, a kid myself. Something like this makes you run around about half-there, you know?
Doris Morgan: I stayed in the car when we drove up to a morgue in Henderson to look for my little eleven-year-old sister. Somebody went in with Daddy, and two people came out on both sides of him, holding him up. We knew then that he had found her.
Reba Moseley: I knew what my sister had worn that day: a pretty red blouse, one I made in my home economics class. In fact, I was upset Thursday morning when she came out of her bedroom wearing it. I said to her, “You knew I worked on that and was waiting to wear it this weekend!” I didn’t talk to her on the bus. That Thursday night about dark we started looking for her, driving through the cold and misting rain to the surrounding towns within a ten-, twelve-mile radius. We were looking for that red blouse.
Verda Mae Harris (whose maiden name was Holland) was in the seventh grade. She now lives in Liberty: I can’t remember how I processed my sister’s death. We didn’t get to see her. My older sister asked my uncle Jessie if Daddy told him how she looked. He said her head was gone except for a few teeth up front. But she had been in PE, and her tennis shoes had her name on them; that’s how he identified her. About a month later, my daddy had a nervous breakdown. Looking at those mangled children just got the best of him.
Ira Joe Moore: I don’t recall being sleepy, even though it was daylight when I got home on Friday morning. By that time, my friends and I were just getting in the way of the activity.
Ed Crudup: I worked without going home. I didn’t sleep. I was on a high. We were finding bodies and pieces of bodies. I was seventeen years old. What maturity I didn’t have came at that time.
“I don’t know how they found enough pastors.”
On Friday morning, after the drizzling rain turned into a full thunderstorm, the weary rescue teams dug out the final remains. By noon, as skies cleared, exhausted workers began to leave, saluted by National Guardsmen. Ten days later, on Easter Sunday, after most families had buried their loved ones in nearby cemeteries, hundreds of visitors arrived for a memorial service at the explosion site. Many of the victims were brought to Pleasant Hill Cemetery, located between New London and Henderson.
Jeanette Martin (whose maiden name was Freeman) was in the fifth grade. She now lives in Northport, Alabama: They held one funeral after another at Pleasant Hill. I went to my sister’s service, and there were many others going on at the same time. I don’t know how they found enough pastors.
Marjorie Kinney: We went to as many funerals as we could. There were three or four every hour.
Myrtle Fay Hayes (whose maiden name was Meador) was in the tenth grade. She now lives near Hallsville: I was in such shock I couldn’t cry for three days. My dead brother’s head had to be tied up like you would a sore thumb.
Reba Moseley: I didn’t want to see my sister’s body at her funeral, but someone guided me down toward the casket, and when I opened my eyes, I saw that her head was big as a dishpan, it had swollen so much. It didn’t look like her at all. That stays with you a long time.
Ledell Carpenter: We had a hard time finding caskets, but once we got the affairs in order, we had a combined funeral for my two sisters at the First Baptist Church in Overton. All of us were in shock. My mother had to be sedated. My daddy took it hard; all of us did.
Nathan Durham: I was in shock for at least a week. The doctors told my dad that I’d snap out of it, so he took me on a little vacation to Louisiana. We were fishing when I started having these feelings, like my dad was keeping something from me. I started asking him questions, and when he began to tell me about the accident, I started to remember: the explosion, Irma Hodges dying in her daddy’s lap. But I didn’t cry until I was back in New London with the parents of my friends who had been killed. I had missed the funerals and everything.
Charles Dial: Some families lost two or three kids. The moms and dads were devastated. A lot of them didn’t want to go on. Afterward, a lot of them moved away.
Bill Thompson: Everything had been changing since the first oil blew in, people coming in from everywhere. Lots of vice comes with the boom, of course, and the good people who came got lumped in with the dark side. Some referred to the newcomers as “oil field trash.” That changed after this disaster.
“It dawned on me then that my friends were probably gone.”
Within two weeks of the explosion, children and teachers returned to finish the school year in portable buildings and makeshift classrooms. There was little talk of the disaster, and prom and graduation went forward as planned. To prevent similar tragedies, Carolyn Frei testified before a special session of the Texas Legislature, which enacted the country’s first law requiring the odorization of natural gas on May 17. Yet some hard feelings remained as the district rebuilt the school in front of the previous site.
Bill Thompson: About ten days after the explosion, we were trying to assemble classes in the gym, but we had no gas in there and it was cold. On March 29 it started snowing, and when we got out, everything was solid white, a blanket of snow.
The teacher called roll for our class to see how many were there. Someone would answer, “He’s in the hospital” or “His folks moved back to Arkansas.” And sometimes it was that he had been killed. When they called the name of the little girl I had switched seats with, I realized she had been killed sitting in my seat. I didn’t know that till that day. I buried the guilt for many years before I came to deal with it. I took the blame for a lot of things.
Amos S. Etheredge: Today, if something happens, they send in 1,500 psychologists to talk to the kids. We didn’t have that.
Nadine Dorsey: I wanted to go to the school. Finally, about a week later, Mother took me. That was a shock. Even though I had been in the blast, I didn’t realize the building had been completely destroyed. It dawned on me then that my friends were probably gone. I asked one of the teachers wandering around outside the school about the kids in my class, and he said they had survived, but everybody in the two other seventh-grade classes had died. I can’t explain how that hit me. We’d been in school together from first to seventh grade.
Margarett Woods (whose maiden name was Stroud) was in the seventh grade. She now lives in Henderson: Our class was quite a bit smaller when we reconvened, and everybody was on edge. One day, my teacher’s crutch fell on the floor, and we were so startled we ran out the door.
Marjorie Kinney: I was in sixth grade at that time, and there were four sixth-grade classes. After the blast, about fifty students from those classes were dead. This grade was hit harder than any other.
William Follis: There were four rooms of us in seventh grade. I’m guessing 120 kids, with 30 a room. And when we went back to the temporary rooms, there were only 20 of us. Where were they? Killed?
H. G. White: While I was in the hospital in Henderson, with my head wrapped in a turban, a Shreveport Times reporter interviewed me. She wrote that in one of my answers to her questions I said, “Gee whiz.” Well, I don’t know where she got that; I never said that phrase. But the article was reprinted in the local paper. So when I started going back to school, they called me Gee Whiz. I could’ve shot her.
Martha Moore: The senior class held the prom at a hotel in Henderson in the latter part of March. Some of the students arrived in ambulances, on stretchers, but we got everybody there. There were about one hundred of us that were supposed to graduate, and we had about fifty at the end of the year. The prom was sad, in a way, but we tried to make it as happy as we could. Nobody danced because too many people had broken legs. But we signed each other’s yearbooks. When graduation time came, we held the ceremony on the football field. It was just a regular graduation. Those that were able to come in wheelchairs and stretchers arrived and did their best to participate.
Carolyn Frei: I was a very outgoing little girl, so I wasn’t nervous when I got up before the Legislature. I had just been through an explosion! I met the governor and the legislators; then I spoke for about five minutes, asking them to pass laws preventing this from happening again.
Billie Mathews: One lady told my dad to talk to her husband, who was getting ready to shoot the superintendent or whoever let this happen. My dad went up and talked to him and calmed him down. Then people threatened to sue and all that.
Lois Johnson: Lawyers came to my uncle’s door asking him to help in a lawsuit against the school, and he almost got his shotgun.
Bill Thompson: The superintendent, Mr. [W. C.] Shaw, was brought into court time and time again. He was acquitted. Still, a lot of people blamed him for switching to this raw gas. That man had a burden no one else had. He had a nervous breakdown. Some people wanted to tar and feather him. Eventually, he resigned and left town.
Charles Dial: Yes, they were angry. Especially my father. He wanted to hurt somebody because they took his child. I told him, “Papa, the superintendent lost family too. He didn’t do it on purpose. You can’t blame him.”
Amos S. Etheredge: That summer a lot of us went to work scraping the mortar off the brick from the old building. They were reusing it for the new building. I turned fourteen in July that year, but I got my Social Security number, since you had to have one to work. I think we got 15 cents an hour, which was good pay back then.
Fran VanAssen: My parents heard that some parents were saying that if they opened another school, they’d kill all the kids in there.
Margaret Nichols: A lot of the parents of friends who were killed found out that I’d survived and threatened to kill me. It was just the shock of it, I guess.
Barbara Page: One day my mother went to garden club, and the women were talking about the explosion. My mother said, “The Lord was so good to me, because my two sons and daughter weren’t hurt.” And of course she was grateful. But another woman spoke up and said, “Well, why wasn’t he good to me?” It broke my mother’s heart. She never mentioned it again.
Marjorie Kinney: Two mothers of children in our class never came out of their depression. They had emotional problems. I can understand why. A lot of people said, “God took the best children and left the others.” That hurt. But man caused it, not God. I guess people did what they thought was the best at the time. That’s all we ever do.
Amos S. Etheredge: In 1938, when we started school in the new building, the students decided to have a holiday on March 18. So we left the building and gathered under a memorial that had been built. And Mr. [Willie] Tate, who was a science and math teacher, talked us into going back to class. He said, “You’ve got to forget this. You can’t keep thinking about it the rest of your lives.” So we went back and finished classes. Life goes on. It has to.
Max Holleyman: We tried to be as normal as we could. Carried on with our regular activities. Our sports teams played, and our band performed as it had before.
Nadine Dorsey: No one mentioned the school explosion after they built the new building. With kids, it was just like it never happened. It’s the strangest thing to me. But you know how kids are. They can put things behind them. They were more resilient than the parents in a way.
“When I got the invitation for the fortieth anniversary, I thought, ‘Okay. I’m ready.’ ”
The success of the first reunion, held forty years after the disaster, prompted biennial gatherings, and in 1998 the London Museum opened its doors, dedicating a large portion of space to the explosion. On the weekend of March 16, an estimated five hundred survivors and their friends will gather at the high school auditorium for the seventieth anniversary.
Opal Hamill: None of us could even cry when it happened. We didn’t for years. At that reunion we finally talked and cried, you know?
Nadine Dorsey: When I got the invitation for the fortieth anniversary, I thought, “Okay. I’m ready.” That’s the first time I cried. Before that, I wouldn’t think about it. I blocked the memory out of my life.
Amos S. Etheredge: I think we had two hundred people at the first reunion. It wasn’t sad, like some people thought it would be. It felt good to think about it after all those years.
Bill Thompson: Around fifty years after the explosion, I called the sister of the girl I’d traded seats with and told her that I had to unburden myself of this guilt.
Ledell Carpenter: I didn’t know Bill Thompson from Adam or Eve. He told me he had asked my little sister, Ethel, to swap seats with him just before the school exploded. He said if she had been in her seat, she wouldn’t have been killed. I told him, “Well, Bill, it was her appointed time. I could have gotten killed, but it wasn’t my time. My brother was in the explosion and he survived. This was Ethel’s time.” He said he had never looked at it like that.
Carmen Peppe (whose maiden name was Osburn) started first grade in September 1937. She now lives in Garland: There is never a day when I don’t have thoughts about the New London event. The day that my mother passed, she was holding up her hands and saying, “Do you see all those children up there?” We are sure she was referring to the schoolchildren of New London.
Margaret Taylor (whose maiden name was McCune) was in the third grade. She now lives in Shreveport, Louisiana: This sounds morbid, but the entire experience left me with a feeling like I had stepped on that thin line that joins this world with the other world. I remember dreaming I was in a body of water and I could hear my dead brother yelling, “Over here! Over here!” Then I’d wake up. I’d almost resent, as a young person, people who were old, who were grieved for. Because they had lived all those years.
Billie Mathews: I want to go to the next reunion. Some survivors tell me, “I don’t live in the past. I live in the future.” But so few of us were left in that sixth-grade class! And now there are even fewer left. I want to see them.