- My Boys and Girls Are In There: The 1937 New London School Explosion
Now that loss of life in American high schools seems common, many will sympathize with this account of the New London school explosion of 1937. On March 18, a gas explosion rocked New London High School in East Texas killing more than three hundred students, faculty, and personnel. News of the explosion spread quickly as media outlets descended on rural Rusk County. The story captured the attention of the world, resulted in a congressional investigation and ultimately led to new state and federal regulations. Author Ron Rozelle's account of the explosion and its aftermath portrays a very human story in a very human way.
New London High School was located in the heart of the East Texas oil patch. Perhaps, the modern well-equipped school owed its very existence to the energy industry; likewise, the school's destruction was the result of lax regulations on that growing industry. Moreover, many of the school's students were the sons and daughters of local oil field workers. Locals' comfort with the many oil wells and the crisscross of oil and "waste" gas lines was misplaced. When natural gas was most often flared off to get to the oil, many, especially oilmen, were wholly unconcerned with what happened to the gas. It was common for residents to tap into gas lines to heat their water and homes. The practice was an open secret at least tacitly condoned by industry officials. When New London Consolidated School District Superintendent W. C. Shaw asked for and got permission to have a janitor tap into the gas line, it seemed like a money-saving measure that many, including some school board members, had already implemented at home.
Most were unaware of the danger posed by the colorless, odorless, flammable gas. New London's residents went about their business for the next two months. Rozelle portrays the day of the explosion in detail. It is a story of fathers going to work, of children going to school, of mothers doing housework and preparing for the children's homecoming—which did not come for many. It is a story of luck and circumstance, of changing places in class, of being chosen to go outside to clean erasers, of missing class, getting on the bus early—of life and death. Under the school was an enclosed crawl space that Lemmie Butler, the shop teacher, used to store lumber. That day, the space also held about 65,000 cubic feet of gas that exploded when Butler flipped the switch to a sander. The concrete and steel building rose in the air several feet before coming apart and falling in a heap of rubble. Passing motorists rushed in. Oil field workers, and mothers who heard the explosion, came as well. Mr. Shaw was among them and was heard saying, "My boys and girls are in there." A young Walter Cronkite was one of the first journalists on the scene.
Today, there is a monument and small museum at the site along Texas Highway 42. The work of various boards of inquiry resulted in new standards for construction and ventilation of buildings, standards and licensing of gas pipe fitters, and finally, malodorants to make gas leaks detectable by smell. The author concedes the story is somewhat "fictionalized," noting that some persons "could not be located." (xi) Nevertheless, primary sources include oral interviews with most major actors. [End Page 339] Furthermore, Rozelle has investigated the roles of President Franklin Roosevelt and Governor James Allred using the appropriate records. The reports of various state and federal investigations of the explosion are also cited. Rozelle's account is a well-researched yet eminently readable narrative.