My mother, Barbara Delabano remembers that faithful day:
We moved to Kilgore in 1931 or maybe 1932. My grandparents lived in Kilgore where my grandfather Taylor was the superintendent for Gulf Oil in the East Texas oil field.
I imagine that current generations would think it odd that it was quite a thing to own an electric washing machine back then. Even having to stand up at the machine and put the clothes through the wringer was a big step up from the wash pot and rubbing board that my other grandmother had in her back yard.
Since grandmother Taylor had a washing machine, my mother Gladys was there doing the family’s laundry. I was on the back porch eating cookies when I heard an explosion. Living near the oil fields, it wasn’t uncommon that you might hear explosions ever once in a while.
Not only did my grandmother have a washing machine, my grandparents had a phone. Shortly thereafter my Grandmother Taylor got a phone call from my grandfather.
Is Gladys still there? There’s been explosion at the New London school and Lester won’t be home for at least three days.
It was March 18, 1937, the New London school was in session and it was just another school day. At 3:17 p.m. the school exploded.
“The school was built on sloping ground and a large air space was enclosed beneath the structure. The school board had overridden the original architect’s plans for a boiler and steam distribution system, instead opting to install 72 gas heaters throughout the building. Early in 1937, the school board canceled their natural gas contract and had plumbers install a tap into Parade Gasoline Company’s residue gas line to save money.”
According to the Texas State Historic Association, Handbook of Texas, “Towns people and oil field workers immediately began digging through the rubble looking for anyone still alive and to recover the dead. Floodlights were set up, and the rescue operation continued through the night as rain fell.”
My mother told me a heartbreaking story about someone the family knew, who had a child at New London that day. The child’s father was waiting outside the school for his daughter to be released when the school exploded. He knew exactly what part of the school she was in. He ran to his daughter’s classroom and found her dead. He scooped her up and drove her to a funeral home in Henderson because he didn’t want his daughter to end up being in a makeshift morgue.
I never heard my grandfather speak of what happened. It was too painful and according to my grandmother, he suffered from what we now call PTSD and had nightmares for years.
I do remember my grandmother talking about it. She told the story that my grandfather came home afterwards with horror stories of picking up limbs and lifeless bodies of children.
And then there was the story of rescuers walking into one classroom that wasn’t crushed from the blast but the children and teacher were killed from the percussive force of the explosion. So when the rescuers entered the classroom, the teacher and all her students had their heads laying on their desks as if they had all just laid their heads down to take a nap.
And then the story of the boy who survived the blast but jumped out his classroom window to escape only to hit his head on some concrete and die.
As a result of this disaster, Texas passed the “Odorization Law” which required that a distinctive odor be mixed into the odorless natural gas so that people could be warned by the smell.
295 children and teachers were lost that day making it the largest school disaster in U.S. history.
As a side note:
In 1937 Walter Cronkite took a job in Houston at the United Press (UP) telegraph news agency. There he covered his first breaking story to make national headlines, the school explosion in New London, Texas.
My memories of stories my grandmother Gladys Taylor told me
YouTube: Texas Texas Tragedy – Explosion Wrecks School (1937)British Pathé: also represents the Reuters historical collection, which includes more than 136,000 items from the news agencies Gaumont Graphic (1910-1932), Empire News Bulletin (1926-1930), British Paramount (1931-1957), and Gaumont British (1934-1959), as well as Visnews content from 1957 to the end of 1984. All footage can be viewed on the British Pathé website. https://www.britishpathe.com/
YouTube: New London Museum This video was produced by Michael Brown Productions of Arlington, TX as a prelude to a feature documentary on the explosion and its aftermath which is planned for the spring of 2013.