I Wuz Just Thinking: The Day a Generation Died

A Centapath rises beside the new school as a monument to those who lost their lives that day.

On a tragic March day in 1937,  The clock struck 3:17, and families from New London would never be the same again.

Mr. Davidson, age 81, guided us through the small New London Museum, just south of my hometown in Kilgore. His older sister had been a victim in the 1937 school explosion.

Days before the school explosion, children and teachers had complained of headaches, coughing, and burning eyes.  No one had any idea that the crawl space beneath the school had filled with natural gas, and no one knows what caused the spark that set off the gas explosion.  The front areas of the school were all filled with this non-odor fresh gas.

After a few days, a young girl who had survived went before the Texas Legislature and asked for schools to be made safe  A formula that had a skunk smell was created and ordered to be placed so that the natural gas could be detected. That same “skunk” smell odor is still used throughout the world today.

Betty Mahurin Baker

I remember when I attended Eastview Elementary school and our coach, James Kennedy, told us about the scars on his face and arms.  He was a student when the explosion occurred, and he quickly jumped beneath his desk. The young girl sitting at the desk next to him was crushed by one of the huge stones that fell on her.

I recall my father-in-law, Frank Garrison, telling me of the May 18, 1937 explosion and how the flames and smoke could be seen in the sky all the way to Kilgore and how everyone rushed to the sight, the men pitching in trying to remove the boulders, bricks, and rubbish, trying to save lives and locate victims. Women brought food and kept coffee going.

A truck passing by was loaded with bushel baskets of peaches. They were quickly dumped so the baskets could be loaded with rubble. A line of men passed the baskets down, one to another. As soon as the baskets were emptied in one area, they were rushed back to the front, quickly filled, and passed back down again.

Oilfield workers came from everywhere to help. Flares were set up to burn throughout the night so the men could continue digging around the clock.

So many were either hospitalized or taken to make-shift morgues in towns surrounding New London.  Parents either dug through the rubble or drove from place to place trying to find or identify their loved ones, sometimes several children from the same family. A lot had to be identified from their clothing or perhaps a pocket knife, a shoe, or some other small item that parents knew belonged to their child.

Most of the funerals were paid for by oilfield companies, the Salvation Army, Red Cross, and donations from individuals around the globe.  Many letters, cards, telegrams were received. Even Adolph Hitler sent a telegram.

Walter Cronkite, was a 22-year-old reporter, and the school explosion was his first major crisis to cover.  His supreme newspaper coverage can still be read today.

Churches were filled with funerals.  It was not just a funeral today and another tomorrow. No, as one coffin was carried out the back door, the next coffin – or several at a time – would be arriving in the front door. Funerals went on days and weeks. More than 300 students, teachers, and parents died in the tragedy.

Doctors came from different towns to assist.  Mother Francis, the new hospital scheduled to have open house ceremonies in Tyler the next, day.  There would never be a ceremony. The hospital was immediately opened to begin taking in survivors from the explosion.  Some lived, some died which added to the number of casualties.

The cenotaph located between the new school building, named West Rusk, and the New London Museum, stands in the middle of the road as a monument to those who lost their lives that day.  There is a small monument at the entrance to the new West Rusk school that is filled with semi-precious stones for each person who lost a life that day. (When the New London school and Gaston school merged, neither wanted to be called by the others’ name, so they agreed to be called West Rusk, named for this area of Rusk County).

On March 18, the classes were dismissed early and many had left the premises. The PTA was meeting in the gym, and several of the classes were performing dances for parents and teachers.  The clock struck 3:17…..The lives of families were never the same.   New London school was already planned to be closed the next day, Friday, for Interscholastic league competitions. It would be closed for a long time.

Many of the students, teachers, and parents are buried in Pleasant Hill Cemetery on Texas Highway 64. I believe 44 band students died from the explosion and were buried in their band uniforms.”

The cemetery is located in the country, is quiet and with a breeze blowing….our minds reliving the stories that we just learned about, that are now so still….a solemn time.

I wuz was just thinking.

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