When the high school in the East Texas community of New London in Rusk County exploded from a natural gas leak on March 18, 1937, killing nearly 300 students and teachers it naturally made headlines all over the world. And of course in the Athens Review where the headline in the Athens Weekly Review of March 25, 1937 described one effect: “Tragedy at New London Touches County Families” and then the reporter described those local connections.
One of these was Miss Ruby Reed, age 16, daughter of a Eustace barber, who was staying with her aunt and uncle as she attended school in New London. Another was 11 year old Mary Francis Bennett whose uncle was an Athens school employee. Also, two other victims were known locally because their family members were connected to sports. This was Miss Queenie Price, whose brother Bud was known locally as a football game referee and Louis Waller, whose brother “Red” was local football coach and Malakoff merchant.
In one case Athens officials were able to assist Dallas resident P.G. Dalton who was on his way to New London to identify his nieces who had died in the accident. He was so upset that Sheriff Jess Sweeten asked local Constable Jack Terrell to take him to Tyler.
Doctors and nurses from all over Texas also headed to New London but upon arrival found that many others had the same idea and there were enough medical personnel on site.
However, some local residents had good news and this was the case for the LaRue area parents of Miss Genevieve Langham, a music teacher at the school. Reports came that she was not a victim since she had left the building before the blast.
Also, local resident Mrs. J.T. (Bobo) Nelson was relieved to hear that her brother, who she thought was at New London, was actually teaching in another city.
The New London area had become prosperous in 1930 when an oil strike provided new jobs and opportunities. The nearby oil fields also brought other advantages and when the new high school was erected in 1932 the school board took advantage of this.
The school building was constructed on a slope, so it had an enclosed air space, sometimes called a sub-basement underneath. Usually a building like this was heated with a natural gas fired boiler and steam distribution system. But in 1937 the school board decided to save money and have plumbers access a direct gas line that was operated by the Parade Gasoline Company. At the time when natural gas was considered a waste product and was flared off, this would be inexpensive but questionable tactic. Also, the colorless and odorless natural gas had a tendency to leak and this had occurred just before the blast. Some students had reported headaches, but nothing was done.
On Thursday, March 18 the younger children were released early in New London, leaving more than 500 older students and their teachers in class. Then about 3:30 a shop instructor turned on an electric sander, there was a spark, and the collected gas/air mixture in the sub-basement exploded.
Witnesses reported that the initial explosion bulged out the walls and propelled the roof up, crashing it back down, collapsing the main wing.
The sound of the explosion, heard some four miles away, attracted locals who began to dig in the rubble and remove victims – both living and dead. Also, oil field roughnecks raced to the scene, and brought with them the heavy equipment necessary to remove the steel and concrete.
There was a great deal of confusion at the impromptu morgue that was quickly established, and so accurate numbers of victims could not be accurately determined. Also, it was possible that some parents had found their children and removed them, without reporting what they had done. In addition, because of the nature of the injuries, many bodies were unidentifiable.
Almost immediately the Texas legislature passed a measure requiring that an odor causing substance be added to natural gas thus making leaks readily detectable. Soon this policy became more widespread.
Later sources labeled the tragedy as the third deadliest Texas disaster, after the 1900 Galveston hurricane and the 1947 ship explosions in Texas City. However, despite these designations, to all the families it was personal because of the loss of their loved ones.