1937 Schoolhouse Explosion ‘Scars Your Mind’ : Texas Town Haunted by Blast That Killed a Generation
Half a century ago this month, a time when the redbuds bloom in Texas, thunder rolled from the belly of a brick schoolhouse and snatched away a generation of children.
“It’s something that scars your mind--the screams, the cries--like some horrible disease you just can’t shake,” said Molly Ward, who was a fourth-grader at the time. She watched from a bus window as the New London school shook with a deafening bellow, then collapsed into a heap of bricks and dust and broken bodies.
At precisely 3:15 p.m. on March 18, 1937, time stopped for New London, population 1,200, then at the center of the world’s greatest oil boom. A natural gas leak in the schoolhouse basement set off a blast that was heard as far away as the roughneck tent-camps of Kilgore and Tyler, 35 miles to the north.
The dead could not be counted. A cenotaph at the center of the town bears 294 names, but survivors say 300 would be a more accurate toll.
It was America’s worst civilian disaster, and remained so until a firestorm swept the docks of Texas City 10 years later, but this small-town tragedy held a special terror. It was selective death, the last and cruelest plague of Moses. More than 270 of the dead were children; a whole generation had been wiped out.
Survivor Lost Peers
“I have thought many times how my life was made different,” said Bill Thompson, a retired factory worker who lives across from the rebuilt school. “I thought about little things, like when I made the varsity (football team) when I shouldn’t have.
“You see, my competition was all dead.”
Despite the passing of time, the memory remains keen.
For Ward, images flash alive at the sound of spring thunder.
Thompson carries ghosts and guilt into his sleep each night. He had swapped desks with a fifth-grade classmate so he could flirt with Billie Sue Hall. Somebody died in the spot where he should have been, and he has never forgiven himself. “I’ve got pain, even today.”
Jack Strickland nearly died, but recovered and got religion and became a preacher.
Ralph Carr got out of the oil business, never able to forget how his daughter stared back at him in her dead repose.
Helen Sillick still looks back on it as a dream.
“I remember being thrown up into the air like a toy, looking around me and seeing the parts of buildings floating in the air with me. I’m up above the school, I think to myself. I can see people walking around, screaming. I keep turning and spinning. Then darkness.”
Witnesses remember, too.
“It still stands out in my memory, exceedingly vivid,” Walter Cronkite, then a 20-year-old reporter for United Press in Dallas, has said. “It was the biggest civilian tragedy I covered in my life. Wars, of course, are another thing, but nothing else equaled it.
“We got down there, and it was one of the most ghastly scenes I ever saw. Those oil field workers whose children were buried there were sobbing as they tore away at the rubble with their bloodied hands, uncovering body after body.”
White House correspondent Sarah McClendon, then a $10-a-week reporter on the Tyler Courier-Times, was one of the first news people on the scene.
“I’ll never forget seeing the bones of a little girl, picked as clean as a whistle, clean as if they had been boiled,” she said. “She was probably never identified. The blast literally tore the flesh from her bones.”
World leaders wired their condolences. One came from Adolf Hitler: “I want to assure your excellency of the German people’s sincere sympathy,” he cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
To save money for winter heat, the school had tapped into a line of raw natural gas coming up from the oil fields. The odorless gas had filled a crawl space beneath the school complex. It took only one spark.
An official inquiry blamed the disaster on a sparking electrical sander. Teacher Lemmie Butler had gone down to a basement classroom to put a few finishing touches on a shop project.
Two months after the disaster, the state passed a law against pumping natural gas without a pungent odorant additive.
How did the gas come to seep into the underpinnings of the school? Nobody knows. Perhaps a valve was left open. Perhaps there was a pipeline fracture. There were hints of sabotage, but nothing was proved.
The mystery resurfaced 24 years later, when an Oklahoma City ex-convict and mental patient told police that he had caused the explosion. William Estel Benson, a student at the time, said he had unscrewed gas pipes beneath the school, hoping to run up the gas bill. He was angry, he said. The principal had chewed him out for smoking.
He had details, including specifications on the pipe never made public. Benson had helped his stepfather install the school plumbing system. “My stepfather owned a pipe yard and I worked with him,” said Benson, a convicted burglar. “I knew plenty about oil and gas pipes, but I didn’t really intend to kill anybody.”
Benson’s sister died in the explosion, and Benson said he spent many of his adult years in mental institutions, trying to deal with the grief.
His confession started a firestorm, but on the same day authorities talked about prosecuting Benson, his lawyers issued a denial. “I just wanted to play the big shot,” Benson said later. The case for sabotage was officially closed.
To grasp the enormity of the tragedy is to understand how good life was in those parts. The Texas oil boom was unprecedented in world history. The lid on the East Texas oil fields had been blown sky high by a 70-year-old wildcatter named “Dad” Joiner. The field developer, Arkansas saloon owner H. L. Hunt, was already well on his way to earning his first billion dollars.
New London was flush with wealth and expectations. The town was smack dab over the deepest of the underground reserves, in the heart of the piney woods country. Drilling camps ringed the area, and its rural school district was the richest in the world.
The main school building, an imposing mass of dun-colored brick and pinkish tile, had three wings connected by a central corridor. There were 25 classrooms, an auditorium and offices. It had 600 students in grades 5 through 11.
Carr, a roughneck at the time, was in the Tidewater offices across from the school entrance when he heard the big sound. The noise was not sharp like a dynamite explosion, but more like the “whump” of a giant vault door closing.
He spun around to see the schoolhouse rising in the air. “I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. It seemed to float up in one piece, then crash down.
Bodies Still in Seats
“I went running inside. My (daughter) Chloe Ann was inside. The dust was so thick you could cut it with a knife, but I found Chloe Ann. Everybody was sitting in their seats. I saw my girl slumped in her seat. She looked so sweet, so normal.”
But Chloe Ann, 16, was dead. She bore no visible injury. Her eyes were open. Doctors call it concussion death. “Something deep inside (her brain) probably snapped,” said Erwin Thal, a trauma surgeon in Dallas. “It was the jolt.”
At the other side of the complex, 12-year-old Thompson had just swapped seats when the windows began to creak and dust sifted in eddies from the plaster overhead. He remembers hearing nothing, but his parents, six miles away, heard a crashing sound at that instant. They thought another oil field boiler had blown.
“Everything went up and around and around,” Thompson said. He blacked out and woke up an hour later, buried in tangled steel and plaster. “I could move one hand and one arm, but everything else was mashed in. I felt hot blood on my face. I kept trying to wake up, pinching myself.”
It took hours for rescue workers to dig him out. Despite his injuries, he stumbled around the campus, trying to help others. “I was covered with blood and thick gray dust. I must have looked like a ghost. I remember seeing the rows and rows of bodies lying in the sun, and hearing the parents shrieking, ‘Have you seen my child? Have you seen my child?’ The searchers were pretty frantic.”
Searched for Mother
Joe Nelson was a searcher. It took days to find his mother, a speech teacher who was among the first to die. “My brothers and I looked everywhere. The bodies were stacked up in churches, in stores, in offices, in homes. The whole town was a morgue. I finally found Mom. Her face was mangled, but we recognized a ring on her finger.”
Little Molly Ward never got over the loss of Jenny Jolly, her best friend. Molly visited Jenny’s family often in the days afterward. Her friend’s body was laid out on a table in her mother’s home.
“I used to go to her home with my mother. I saw Jenny a lot. Half of her face still looked like she was Jenny. The other half was swollen and bruised. I was young and didn’t understand how this could happen. I still don’t.”
The explosion was a big disaster in a small place, and there was an odd ripple effect. A few days later the school was reopened with about a third of its former enrollment. Classes met in the gymnasium, which was left largely intact. The 16 survivors of Thompson’s class of 26 huddled behind wooden partitions and built fires to keep warm when a late snowstorm struck.
Many classes, including Chloe Ann Carr’s, were wiped out, as were many families. The Walker family, for instance, lost all five sons and daughters. Businesses went under in those late Depression years, but nobody can say for sure if lost heirs were the reason.
There were no more school dances for some time. The churches were full, especially the old Baptist church and the clapboard Church of Christ, packed every Sunday and Wednesday night.
And for weeks visitors--the curious and the kin--thronged tiny Pleasant Hill cemetery, six miles away, where 200 or so small graves had been cut into the black loam.
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