Seventy-seven years may have passed and a lot of the survivors may be getting “up in years,” but they still gather every March 18 to remember the tragedy and mourn those who didn’t live through the devastating explosion.
As they have done most every March 18 since that horrible day in 1937, New London explosion survivors will gather today to mourn the dead, thank God one more time that they survived and tell the stories once again to make sure no ever forgets the devastating explosion at the Rusk County school.
The year 1937, to most people, seems like a long time ago. But, for the survivors of the New London explosion, some of them say that 1937 feels like yesterday and the explosion is still fresh in minds that have seen a lot of miles since then.
The explosion has been depicted in print several times over, has now been documented in film by Liberty City native and film student Kristin Beauchamp and made Walker Cronkite, at the same a fledgling reporter, a famous man and catapulted him into the national spotlight. It is also depicted, for the world to see, in the New London Museum, which sits adjacent to the New London school and has a restaurant tied to the museum. Also, there is a cenotaph in the middle of Texas Highway 42, adjacent to the school and museum as well, to constantly remind people traveling along the roadway of what occurred on that spot so many years ago.
That March 18 day, in 1937, was just an ordinary Thursday afternoon until 3:17 p.m. when a deafening explosion shook the ground for miles around. From then, until today, New London and Rusk County has never been the same.
The London School, a jewel in the East Texas Oilfield and the center of a lot of drilling in the East Texas Oilfield, was reduced to a flaming pile of rubble and steel. Mothers on the campus for PTA meetings rushed to try to dig survivors out with their bare hands. The owners and customers of a small cafe, grocery store and filling station across the street joined them.
It did not take long for word of the disaster to spread through the oilfield, and employees of many neighboring well sites emptied those locations and brought whatever tools and equipment they could to help in the search and rescue mission. People left schools, offices, shops and hospitals to get to the explosion site as quickly as possible. Ambulances and law enforcement from towns miles away scurried to the scene as well, hoping to find survivors and get them treated as quickly as possible.
Hospitals in Kilgore, Overton, Henderson, Longview and Tyler and Jacksonville overflowed with the injured and dying, causing parents trauma filled moments as they went from hospital to hospital looking for their children. For the next few weeks, from early morning until last light in the evening, funerals were held for the young people who didn’t survive.
After an extensive investigation, it was determined the explosion had been caused by a gas leak. Following that explosion and resulting calamity, the Texas Legislature passed a law requiring the treatment of gas with a characteristic odorant to warn of leaks.
The school, reduced to a mass of rubble, was rebuilt before World War II. The marble cenotaph was erected in front of the new school, inscribed with the names of the over 300 students and teachers and staff who died in the explosion. Since 1977, the community has scheduled biennial reunions to commemorate the day and allow survivors, to once again, remember and console each other. In the years when the reunion is not held, like this one, the survivors who live locally or close by still get together to remember.
Tuesday is a day that these survivors never forget. And, even as they age and more and more of their fellow survivors pass away, it is still a time to get together and mourn the dead, rejoice on their good fortune and never let the horror of March 18, 1937 be forgotten.