My Boys and Girls Are in There: The 1937 New London School Explosion
By Ron Rozelle
(Texas A&M, hardback, list price $24.95; Kindle edition, list price $24.95)
Gone at 3:17: The Untold Story of the Worst School Disaster in American History
By David M. Brown and Michael Wereschagin
(Potomac Books, hardback, $29.95; Kindle edition, list price $29.95)
On March 18, 1937, in East Texas’ tiny New London community, a natural gas explosion killed some 300 students, teachers and others at London Junior-Senior High School.
Seventy-five years later, the exact death toll in America’s worst school disaster remains uncertain. But its grim lessons are relevant and timely again as school districts across the nation struggle to cut their operating expenses without endangering student safety.
Briefly, at least, the New London catastrophe made world headlines. Even Adolph Hitler sent a message of condolence. One of the reporters who covered the explosion’s aftermath was a young Dallas newsman named Walter Cronkite.
But 1937 was a year full of troubling currents and undercurrents, including the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Germany, Italy and Japan as military powers, and the Roosevelt Administration’s continuing struggles to lift the American economy out of the Great Depression.
Across most of the world, the devastating event soon faded into the global swirl of tensions and distractions.
But not in New London. The shock continued to run so deep, townspeople “refused to speak of the explosion or of its victims, to the press or even to each other,” Ron Rozelle notes in My Boys and Girls Are in There.
Indeed, four decades passed before the first commemoration could be organized. And, 75 years after the school tragedy, some people still shudder when the explosion is mentioned. Pains and fears it created continue to be carried forward by survivors, witnesses, family members, and friends of the dead and injured.
“Sorrow is ambulatory, and refuses to be left behind,” writes Rozelle, an author and educator who grew up 80 miles from New London. Rozelle’s father was one of many volunteers who helped search the destroyed school for survivors and victims.
Rozelle’s book is written to read like a novel, yet its chapters arise from historical records, extensive follow-up research, and interviews with people who lost loved ones, survived injuries or otherwise were scarred.
Meanwhile, one of the authors of Gone at 3:17, David M. Brown, also grew up in East Texas and has spent more than two decades interviewing New London survivors, rescuers and others. His co-writer, Michael Wereschagin, is a veteran journalist who has covered several large disasters. Their factual account likewise reads like a story. And, benefitting from doubled manpower, it offers some additional details on survivors, witnesses, investigations, and where victims were buried.
Both works are well-researched and well-written, and they bring fresh perspectives to the New London school explosion and its aftermath. They also can be emotionally wrenching to read.
A key lesson from New London remains valid today as states struggle to reduce their school budgets. New London’s school was part of the London Consolidated School District, which may have been America’s richest rural school district in 1937. Tax revenues from oil production and related industries were plentiful. Indeed, London Junior-Senior High was the first secondary school in Texas to get electric lights for its football field. Yet, the superintendent and at least some of the board members still bore down hard on costs, to the point that money finally was put above student safety.
Late in 1936, the superintendent, with quiet approval from four board members, decided to disconnect the school from commercial natural gas and tap into a free, unregulated and widely available byproduct of gasoline refining: waste natural gas. Their hope was to save $250 a month.
Refineries pumped the waste gas back to oil rigs through networks of bleed-off lines, and rig operators were required to dispose of it. Most released it into the air through tall pipes, and the gas was burned, lighting the sky night and day with flaring orange flames.
“The practice of tapping into waste gas lines was something of an open secret in the oil patch,” Brown and Wereschagin write. Homeowners and business owners welded valves to some of the bleed-off lines, and they installed regulators to try to control gas pressures that varied widely. “With no one monitoring it, it came with no bill,” they note.
One pipeline passed 200 feet from New London’s school, and in 1937: “The [connection] crew had gone out in early January—a janitor, two bus drivers, and a welder the school had contracted….”
Blame for the blast often has been placed on the superintendent and on some of the board members he reported to. However, both of these new books highlight bad choices made by others, as well.
For example, refiners failed to enforce policies barring gas line taps, Brown and Wereschagin point out. And no one could smell the odorless gas as it leaked and collected in the school’s big basement, Rozelle emphasizes.
A single electrical spark from a basement light switch apparently set off the explosion.
Afterward, Texas quickly passed laws that might have been enacted sooner, if politics had not stood in the way. One law added a malodorant, “a distinctive, faintly repulsive scent,” to natural gas to provide as leak warning. Another law required “anyone working with gas connections be trained and certified as an engineer by the state.” Other states soon followed Texas’ action.
Today, Brown and Wereschagin stress, most Americans “have never heard of the New London, Texas, school explosion” and have no idea how or why natural gas got its noxious smell.
These two timely books provide painful but important reminders why the New London school explosion and its grim lessons should never be forgotten.
– Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. He also is a former newspaper and magazine photojournalist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir available now in paperback. He is the author of a detective novel, Erwin’s Law, a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.