By Byron Spires,
(Editor’s Note: Because of the length of this article it will be published in two editions.)
In light of the recent Rural Summit on school safety and tragedies such as Sandy Hook the following story is about the worst school disaster in American history.
The story is told both from a historical point of view and recollections of Lillian Anderson Swartz, a local woman who lost relatives in the disaster.
From this event one man would start a broadcasting career, a safety measure that is still used today was initiated, and a world leader would send a sympathy card.
Lillian heard the stories all of her life about the New London, Texas school explosion that left nearly 300 students and teachers dead.
Two of her aunts, Allene, 13, and Lillian Anderson, 15, were among the students that perished inside the school building at the time of the explosion.
It was written later that the explosion was equivalent to 70 pounds of explosives per square foot of floor space.
Another of Lillian’s aunts, Billie Anderson, who was in the first grade, happened to be on the playground at the time of the explosion, playing Jacks with another child.
Her uncle, William Anderson, was home from school on that particular day. Another aunt, Edith, was too young for school and was still at home.
Lillian’s mother, Sandra Anderson, was born after the tragedy.
Her maternal grandmother, Lola, worked in the cafeteria and was unharmed
In her family it is a monumental event, which she and her relatives still talk about today.
Lillian said it was often referred to as the “day the angels left.”
At the root of those discussions is the 24 hours that her grandfather searched for his daughters first in the rubble of the school, then the hospitals and morgues set up in nearby towns around New London.
He would finally find them, his precious children, in a makeshift morgue set up in a nearby city.
Lillian remembers as a child going to the graveyard to visit relatives’ graves with her grandmother and seeing the sadness on her face when she stood by the graves of her two young daughters.
She knew that those two young girls had had their lives cut short and would never know the happiness of marriage, children and grandchildren, and it always saddened her.
New London is located in northwest Rusk County and in 1937 it sat in the middle of the booming East Texas oilfields. The school district was one of the richest in the country at the time.
The following was written about the day of the explosion on the New London Museum web page:
On March 18 (Thursday), students were preparing for the next day's inter-scholastic meet in Henderson.
At the gymnasium, the PTA met.
At 3:17 P.M. Lemmie R. Butler, instructor of manual training, turned on a sanding machine in an area which, unknown to him, was filled with a mixture of gas and air.
The switch ignited the mixture and carried the flame into a nearly closed space beneath the building, 253 feet long and fifty-six feet wide.
Immediately the building seemed to lift in the air and then smashed to the ground.
Walls collapsed. The roof fell in and buried its victims in a mass of brick, steel, and concrete debris.
The explosion was heard four miles away, and it hurled a two-ton concrete slab 200 feet away, where it crushed a 1936 Chevrolet.
It would take only fifteen minutes for the news of the explosion to be relayed over telephone and Western Union lines across the neighboring farms and towns.
Lillian remembers her mother saying that parents from across the school district were soon on the way to the school.
People from the community and roughnecks from the oilfield were soon at the building digging through the rubble for the survivors.
Within an hour of the explosion Governor James Allred had sent the Texas Rangers and highway patrol to aid the victims.
It started to rain, but rescue operations continued through the night.
Within seventeen hours all victims and debris had been taken from the site.
Mother Francis Hospital in Tyler canceled dedication ceremonies for their new 60-bed hospital to take care of the injured.
The Texas Funeral Directors sent twenty-five embalmers, the website states.
An article from a Tyler, Texas newspaper wrote the next day that there were 3,000 men on the ground removing debris and searching for bodies.
Practically every company operating in the East Texas oilfield had equipment at the scene. The telephone company had temporary lines set up at the school. Two local radio stations carried on a constant broadcast throughout the night to help with identifying the dead, the article stated.
Here is an excerpt from the website about two brothers. One would live, but the other would die in the explosion:
Toward the end of the school day, Dalton's teacher allowed the children in her class to swap seats and visit with their friends. Dalton swapped with his girlfriend to sit in her desk located on the last row.
When the explosion occurred, his girlfriend was killed. Dalton managed to step over a friend's head and crawl out of the debris through a narrow slit of a window.
He ran home, terrified and bleeding from his head and arms. When he ran into the house, he noticed the two hot cups of hot chocolate waiting for him and his big brother.
But his mother and little brother were no where to be found; his mother had grabbed Talmage (the youngest of the family) and ran toward the school to look for her two children.
Boyd had been blown from one building to another with some parts of his limbs lying along the way. It was reported that he called out to his mother before he died, although, it was decided to tell his mother that he died instantly.
Horror stories abound about the incident. One family lost all three children; one mother could positively identify her ten-year-old's body only because the little girl while playing dress-up the night before, had used a crayon to color her toenails red.
Locals still refer to the tragedy as “The Day a Whole Generation Would Die.”