In 1937, a natural gas leak at the local school in New London, Texas caused a massive explosion that killed upward of 295 students and teachers, the deadliest school disaster in US history. Adolf Hitler even sent his condolences by telegram
At some time between 3:05 and 3:20PM Central (local) time, Lemmie R. Butler (an “”instructor of manual training””) turned on an electric sander. It is believed that the sander’s switch caused a spark that ignited the gas-air mixture.
The remains of the London School after the explosion of March 18, 1937
Reports from witnesses state that the walls of the school bulged, the roof lifted from the building, and then crashed back down and the main wing of the structure collapsed. The force of the explosion was so great that a two-ton concrete block was thrown clear of the building and crushed a 1936 Chevrolet parked nearby. Approximately 600 students and 40 teachers were in the building at the time.
The explosion was its own alarm, heard for miles. The most immediate response was from parents at the PTA meeting. Within minutes, area residents started to arrive and began digging through the rubble, many with their bare hands. Roughnecks from the oil fields were released from their jobs, and brought with them cutting torches and heavy equipment needed to clear the concrete and steel.
London School bus driver Lonnie Barber was transporting elementary students to their homes, and was in sight of the school as it exploded. Barber continued his two hour route, returning children to their parents before rushing back to the school to look for his four children. His son Arden died, but the others were not seriously injured. Barber retired the next year.
Aid poured in from outside the area. Governor James Allred dispatched Texas Rangers, highway patrol, and the Texas National Guard. Thirty doctors, 100 nurses, and 25 embalmers arrived from Dallas. Airmen from Barksdale Field, deputy sheriffs, and even Boy Scouts took part in the rescue and recovery.
Of the more than 600 people in the school, only about 130 escaped without serious injury. Estimates of the number dead vary from 296 to 319, but that number could be much higher, as many of the residents of New London at the time were transient oilfield workers, and there is no way to determine for certain how many of these roughnecks collected the bodies of their children in the days following the disaster and returned them to their respective homes for burial. Most of the bodies were either burned beyond recognition, or blown to pieces. One mother had a heart attack and died when she found out that her daughter died, with only part of her face, her chin and a couple of bones recovered. Another boy was identified by the presence of the pull string from his favorite top in his jeans pocket.
Rescuers worked through night and rain, and 17 hours later, the entire site had been cleared. Buildings in the neighboring communities of Henderson, Overton, Kilgore and as far away as Tyler and Longview were converted into makeshift morgues to house the enormous number of bodies, and everything from family cars to delivery trucks served as hearses and ambulances. A new hospital, Mother Frances Hospital in nearby Tyler, was scheduled to open the next day, but the dedication was canceled and the hospital opened immediately.
Reporters who arrived in the city found themselves swept up in the rescue effort. Former Dallas Times Herald executive editor Felix McKnight, then a young AP reporter, recalled, “”We identified ourselves and were immediately told that helpers were needed far more than reporters.”” Walter Cronkite also found himself in New London, on one of his first assignments for United Press. Although Cronkite went on to cover World War II and the Nuremberg trials, he was quoted as saying decades later, “”I did nothing in my studies nor in my life to prepare me for a story of the magnitude of that New London tragedy, nor has any story since that awful day equaled it.””
Not all of the buildings on the 10-acre (40,000 m2) campus were destroyed. One of the surviving buildings, the gymnasium, was quickly converted into multiple classrooms. Inside new tents and the modified buildings, classes resumed 10 days later.
The majority of the victims of the explosion are buried at Pleasant Hill Cemetery, near New London.
Adolf Hitler, who was the German Chancellor at the time, paid his respects in the form of a telegram, a copy of which is on display at the London Museum.”