Sometimes there is an event so horrible that the only saving grace might be that we were not alive when it happened.
Such was the afternoon of March 18, 1937 in the prosperous oil town of New London in East Texas. At 3:17 p.m., a few minutes before the final bell was to ring, a natural gas explosion literally lifted the four-year-old, two-story New London Junior-Senior High School off its foundation before crashing down and crushing more than 300 students and teachers.
New London now is synonymous with the worst school catastrophe in American history. Its aftermath profoundly changed the natural gas business forever.
To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the disaster, two excellent books are available. “My Boys and Girls Are in There, The 1937 New London School Explosion,” by Ron Rozelle, (Texas A&M University Press, 168 pp.) offers an excellent account of the events leading up to the blast and the nightmarish scene that followed.
Another compelling and more definitive book is “Gone at 3:17, The Untold Story of the Worst School Disaster in American History,” by David M. Brown and Michael Wereschagin, (Potomac Books, 297 pp. $29.95)
Few families were unaffected and many lost more than one child. Making the scene even more macabre was the fact that a PTA meeting was being held in a building near the blast site, filled with mothers whose children were among the dead. Both books carry the haunting picture of the 12 girls comprising the softball team taken the day of the blast. All died. New London’s people would bury their hearts along with their children and teachers as there was no grief counseling available.
In his book “A Reporter’s Life”, Walter Cronkite recalls rushing from Dallas and finding a harrowing sight beyond belief where “huge floodlights from the oil fields illuminated a great pile of rubble at which men and women tore with their bare hands.”
Rozelle writes that the abundance of natural gas found in the oil fields was essentially worthless and what wasn’t used to fire up the boilers that powered rig pumps and other machinery had to be flared off. So, nearly all local businesses and homes illegally tapped into pipelines carrying the unstable residual gas.
Backed by trustees, Superintendent W.C. Shaw decided to follow suit tapping into a pipeline carrying waste gas from a gasoline refinery. This, even though the cost savings were miniscule for the richest country school in the nation, and this school was designed for a steam-heated oil boiler. At 3:17, wood shop instructor Lemmie Butler turned on an electric sander which threw off a spark and ignited the gas.
Tests by an explosives expert determined the gas hadn’t seeped through the ground and the regulator was found to be working properly. This meant the disaster was caused by a break in the pipe that ran around the entire outer wall of the enclosed crawl space, filling the 65,000-square-foot area with odorless gas. How the pipe may have been broken was left to conjecture.
Shaw lost his own son that day; soon, he also lost his job and eventually his mind, often heard to be muttering “my boys and girls are in there,” as many of the townsfolk blamed him for the blast. It was never proven that the use of free gas caused the explosion. The federal Bureau of Mines stated that the explosion would have occurred if the gas had been free or paid for. The properties of the two products would have made no difference, according to the report.
As a result, a law was quickly passed that required that a distinctive odor be introduced into all natural gas. The state of Texas would also require that anyone installing any fixtures or working with any connections on lines containing gas be trained and certified.
Rozelle had a personal reason for writing his book. “My father was a school superintendent 60 miles away and went there the night of the disaster to help. But he could never talk about what he did or saw.”