80 Years Ago, Hundreds Killed in Texas School Explosion

Otis Bryan was filling an inkwell on March 18, 1937, when suddenly the 11-year-old fifth-grader's art class in his school in the East Texas town of New London was shaken and invaded by a dark cloud of smoke.

Although Bryan said he didn't hear anything or understand what was happening, he started running and was able to exit from the back of the school down a staircase. He recalls running about one mile to get home, where he noticed he was bleeding and had small pieces of debris in his skin.

A steady stream of ambulances and first responders passed by his home, Bryan told the Tyler Morning Telegraph.

"Everyone was hollering, 'the New London School blew up,"' said Bryan, now 91, of Overton.

Saturday marks the 80th anniversary of the tragedy.

At 3:17 p.m. that day, Lemmie R. Butler, an instructor of manual training, turned on a sanding machine in an area that he didn't know was filled with a gas, according to information provided on the New London Museum's website. The switch is said to have ignited the mixture of gas and air and carried a flame under the building, seemingly lifting the building into the air and smashing it back to the ground.

News of the explosion traveled quickly and residents from the community, oilfield workers, the Texas Rangers, highway patrol and others dug through the rubble looking for victims, according to the museum. Of the 500 students and 40 teachers estimated to be at the school, 294 people were confirmed dead and there may have been more victims, officials at the museum said.

"I was just 11 years old," Bryan said. "I'm sure it didn't do what it did to the mothers and fathers who lost their kids. (They never got) over that."

J.M. Jones is a volunteer docent at the New London Museum and said that incident is the reason natural gas now has a smell similar to rotten eggs.

He added that it is important that the story of the explosion continue be told.

"It is painful, obviously, but worse would be letting it disappear," he said. "What (was supposed to be) a regular school day turned out to be America's worse school day."

New London is located about 130 miles southeast of Dallas.


Copyright AP - Associated Press
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