It was a sunny, but crisp Spring day in New London, Texas on March 18th, 1937. Students inside the high school must have been getting restless. The bell to go home would ring in only a few minutes.

Instead, a massive explosion tore through the beautiful new building. It was state-of-the-art for 1937, a two-story brick "E" shaped building with new amenities, like a chemistry lab and a lighted football field. It was built by the ample proceeds of nearby fields of natural gas.

And it would be ripped asunder by the same force.

KVUE on Youtube
KVUE on Youtube

Some students recalled having headaches that morning, or stinging eyes. But in a facility of that size, there were going to be some kids with minor health complaints. Only in retrospect do we know that those kids were likely feeling the effects of the natural gas pouring into the building from the basement.

Nowadays, we'd know immediately if there was a natural gas leak, as everything would reek of boiled eggs. Natural gas providers are required to odorize gas because of this disaster. The law passed shortly after the tragedy in Texas. Other states followed suit.

The school had tapped into a free residue gas line to save a few hundred dollars a month. However, something sparked the gas, creating an explosion that could be heard miles away. Many students recalled hearing something very loud, then darkness, then crawling or being lifted from the debris.

KVUE on Youtube
KVUE on Youtube

Almost every student who survived recalled seeing the mangled bodies of their siblings and their friends. Words like "flattened" "split open" and even "roadkill" pepper their recollections of the horrific event, during which over 300 students and teachers perished.

Students, still children themselves, were called to identify bodies, some managed so badly as to be unrecognizable. One student recalled his parents identifying his sister only by her name written on her P.E. shoes.

Nearby oil and gas workers flooded in to assist parents and students with pulling children, both alive and dead, from the wreckage. Peach baskets, full of debris and body parts, were passed from one person to the other in a gruesome assembly line.

KVUE on Youtube
KVUE on Youtube

Children pulled from the building had white hair from the concrete that had been pulverized into a powder. They wiped it out of their eyes. It was sticky where it mixed with their blood.

As that horrible day wore on, it began to get cold, then rainy, as Texas weather does tend to turn on a dime. Still, parents, students, bus drivers, and any available truck drove children miles away to hospitals- or their bodies to temporary morgues.

One young journalist, Walter Cronkite, would be one of the first to report on the devasting scene. He would later say that nothing in his long tenure as a new reporter would ever compare to the magnitude of the New London disaster.


As the days wore on, radio reports would describe a child's clothing and then declare them hospitalized or dead. Some were misidentified. There was a lot of confusion. Many students spent weeks in the hospital before they could return to a "normal" life.

KVUE on Youtube
KVUE on Youtube

Less than two weeks later, school started again in temporary buildings. The class sizes were greatly diminished- the loss of classmates was profound. No one would dance at the prom that followed, as too many students were in wheelchairs or on crutches.

The tragedy of New London School is still the worst school-related disaster in U.S. History and the third worst disaster of any kind in Texas history.

Since then, the odorization of natural gas has likely saved countless lives. A monument and a museum in New London keep the memory of this devasting tragedy alive.

Amongst the wreckage was found a blackboard with the writing still legible:

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.

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