Monday marks the 76th anniversary of the New London School explosion, when more than 300 lives were lost in the world’s worst school tragedy at that time.
March 18 was a day that changed forever the face of the East Texas oilfield, and left a mark on a Rusk County community that remains to this day. Survivors remember it as just an ordinary Thursday afternoon, but at 3:17 p.m. a deafening explosion shook the ground for miles around.
It was an event that etched itself into the memory of Ken Honeycutt, now 84. Honeycutt grew up in New London and was in close proximity to the school when calamity struck. Honeycutt was just 8-years-old at the time — a third-grader.
“My younger brother, Baxter, and I were playing outside, and there was the loudest explosion that you can imagine,” he said. “I turned, and it looked as if the entire back wall of the school was slowly falling over.”
The state-of-the-art London School was suddenly transformed into a pile of concrete slabs and twisted metal.
Even before the dust settled, PTA mothers were tearing at the rubble with their bare hands. The owners and customers of the small cafe, grocery store, and filling station across Texas Highway 42 joined them.
“I had a lot of relatives going to school then,” Honeycutt said. “My cousin Forrest was in the sixth grade; my Aunt Elson in the 10th grade. Forrest was killed. My Aunt Elson had back injuries, but the major effect on her was emotional. She lived a very anxiety-filled life from then on.”
Word of the calamity quickly spread through East Texas.
Oil fields emptied as workers flocked to New London, many driving heavy equipment to aid in the rescue. People left schools, offices, shops, and hospitals to rush to the school. Ambulances and police vehicles arrived, sirens screaming, from neighboring towns.
Hospitals in Overton, Kilgore, Henderson, Longview, Tyler and Jacksonville overflowed with London’s injured and dying kids. Parents frantically searching for their children went to one hospital after another.
In area cemeteries, the funerals began, one after another, from morning until night.
“This event seared my brain for life. I can remember almost every detail of it,” he said. “And everything that came after.”
Experts converged on New London to determine the cause of the explosion, which was concluded to have been a gas leak.
Gas, in its natural state is odorless and undetectable by ordinary means. Afterward, the Texas Legislature passed a law requiring the treatment of gas with a characteristic odorant to warn of leaks. This legislation probably prevented many, similar disasters.
London School was rebuilt before World War II began, and a marble cenotaph was erected in front of the new school, inscribed with the names of the dear departed.
Alumni and members of the community have held special biennial reunions since 1977, which provided many an opportunity to come together and remember, and finally to begin to heal the wounds left on that spring day when “a community lost a whole generation.”
To learn more about the London School Explosion, see the website NewLondonSchool.org.