On March 18, 1937, a spark ignited a vast pool of natural gas that had collected beneath the school building in New London, a tiny community in East Texas. The resulting explosion leveled the four-year-old structure and resulted in a death toll of more than three hundred—most of them children. To this day, it is the worst school disaster in the history of the United States. The tragedy and its aftermath were the first big stories covered by Walter Cronkite, then a young wire service reporter stationed in Dallas. He would later say that no war story he ever covered—during World War II or Vietnam—was as heart-wrenching.
In the weeks following the tragedy, a fact-finding committee sought to determine who was to blame. It soon became apparent that the New London school district had, along with almost all local businesses and residents, tapped into pipelines carrying unrefined gas from the plentiful oil fields of the area. It was technically illegal, but natural gas was in abundance in the “Oil Patch.” The jerry-rigged conduits leaked the odorless “green” gas that would destroy the school.
A long-term effect of the disaster was the shared guilt experienced—for the rest of their lives—by most of the survivors. There is, perhaps, no better example than Bill Thompson, who was in his fifth grade English class and “in the mood to flirt” with Billie Sue Hall, who was sitting two seats away. Thompson asked another girl to trade seats with him. She agreed—and was killed in the explosion, while Thompson and Hall both survived and lived long lives, never quite coming to terms with their good fortune.
My Boys and Girls Are in There: The 1937 New London School Explosion is a meticulous, candid account by veteran educator and experienced author Ron Rozelle. Unfolding with the narrative pace of a novel, the story woven by Rozelle—beginning with the title—combines the anguished words of eyewitnesses with telling details from the historical and legal record. Released to coincide with the seventy-fifth anniversary of the New London School disaster, My Boys and Girls Are in There paints an intensely human portrait of this horrific event.
|Publisher:||Texas A&M University Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
The author of seven previous books, Ron Rozelle is a member of the Texas Institute of Letters.
Read an Excerpt
My Boys and Girls Are in There
The 1937 New London School Explosion
By Ron Rozelle
Texas A&M University PressCopyright © 2012 Ron Rozelle
All rights reserved.
The night had been just chilly enough to require a light quilt over the bedspread. An hour before daylight Floy Dees rubbed her hands together for a satisfying moment over the gas flame on the stove before she slid her heavy iron skillet onto the grate.
Soon the fragrance of sizzling bacon brought Marvin in yawning, buttoning his shirt. He poured himself a cup of coffee, drifted his hand across the back of Floy's neck, and watched the three rig flares that he could see from the kitchen window.
They liked to sit on the front porch at night and watch the bluish white flames, and sometimes they got in the car and drove up to a hilltop that offered a wide panorama of thousands of flickering lights. Floy had told him one night that it was almost like the oil companies had lit them all to give everybody something pretty to enjoy, like more candles than you could count underneath a sky full of even more stars. Marvin had laughed at that, and told her the companies didn't care one bit about pretty things, but only about making money. Natural gas that came up with oil was a worthless commodity, and what wasn't needed to fire the boilers that powered each rig's pump and other machinery had to be flared off.
She knew that, of course. But she liked the notion of candles better.
When they sat down and ate their breakfast the scraping of silverware against plates was the only sound other than the soft, sliding rhythm of the trio of pumps located close by. They both were twenty-one, and had only been married for a little over two years, but they didn't feel the need to chatter away through a conversation when one wasn't needed, being that confident of each other that they could sit quietly through a meal or a radio show or a drive.
They had grown up together, in nearby Troup. When they'd finished the eleventh grade, which was as high as grades went in county schools, they married, which was as logical and natural a step as Marvin's gravitation to the oil field.
There was a quick kiss at the door after he put on his jacket and made sure he had his work gloves in the pockets. Then she handed him his metal lunch box with a small thermos of coffee inside the rounded top and watched as he started off up the dark road to the local headquarters of the Texas Company, one of a legion of oil concerns that had set up field offices seven years before.
Marvin's walk was shorter than most workers; only two hundred yards or thereabouts. Floy watched him from the porch until she couldn't see him anymore. She knew that in a few minutes he'd step out of the darkness into the bright light of busy industry, where big floodlights illuminated parked trucks, a yard stacked with piles of various lengths of steel pipe, a warehouse, and a small office that didn't look any more grandiose than the other structures made of wood and corrugated tin. Once there he'd fall in with his crew and they'd gas up their truck, fill a big cooler with ice and water, and wait until their foreman got his orders from the field superintendent. Then they'd head off to a lease and do whatever needed doing until quitting time.
Floy shivered just a bit as the first pink vein of pale sunlight showed itself over the top of a thick stand of pines and cedars. She decided that later, when the sun had been up long enough to burn off the morning chill, she'd drive over to her uncle's store in Henry's Chapel and buy some groceries.
She looked one last time, before turning to go inside, at the road that Marvin had just walked up. Then she caught herself smiling as she thought of him finding his favorite supper that afternoon when he came back down it.
* * *
Seven miles away, in New London, Virgie Abercrombie looked out at the early morning sky through the window over her kitchen sink and listened to her boys finishing their breakfasts. She would have hers later, after Boyd and Dalton had left for school and Talmage, her youngest, was either down for a nap or sprawled out on the floor with one of the new pups.
Virgie normally wouldn't have even considered letting an animal in her house, but she'd recently relented. Talmage was recovering from extensive surgery to correct his defective legs, which were now encased in a pair of heavy plaster casts. Since he couldn't do the roaming around that two-year-olds naturally do, she brought the pup in occasionally to keep him entertained.
She glanced at the clock on her kitchen wall and told the boys to hurry up or they'd be late. She'd cooked the first breakfast for her husband Eric long before daylight, even before he rolled slowly out of their bed and pulled on coarse khaki pants, two shirts, and great clunky boots for another long day in the oil fields. Later she'd prepared another batch of scrambled eggs, fried ham, and buttermilk biscuits for the boys. In a little while, when everyone was gone except for Talmage and herself, she would make do with whatever was left over. If nothing was, she'd treat herself to a slice of pound cake and a last cup of coffee.
Boyd, the oldest, mopped up the last of his eggs with what was left of a thick biscuit and sloshed it down with frothy milk. When he dragged his shirtsleeve across his mouth he winked across the table at Talmage and broke into a few twangy lines from a song he'd heard the Light Crust Doughboys sing on the radio the night before.
Dalton and his mother watched until Boyd was finished then they looked at each other, both of them at a loss as to where all his bluster came from. His parents were quiet people, and Dalton was so shy that he might go an entire day without saying a single word to anyone other than a teacher who asked him a direct question.
But a generous dollop of blarney had tumbled down from somewhere and lodged in Boyd, who, at sixteen, was already adept at talking pure nonsense to anyone who would listen, especially pretty girls. The Abercrombies were new to town, along with many other families who'd come so their men could work in the oil field as long as possible before going home again. But Boyd had settled in as if he'd been raised there. In other parts of the nation he might have been compared to a young Lincoln; he was that gangly, with huge hands and feet, and he had that many stories to tell. But in eastern Texas not enough old people that still held Lincoln personally responsible for a multitude of sins had died by 1937 to let such a similarity count as a compliment.
Talmage hooted and clapped in his highchair when Boyd finished the song, which earned him another wink.
The rest of the little family—little, at least, by rural standards of that era, when households often ran to nine or more children—could no more account for the special bond between Boyd and Talmage than they could for Boyd's jocund personality. The oldest brother had laid claim to the youngest since shortly after his birth. When Virgie would go to bathe Talmage, feed him, or put him to bed she often as not discovered that Boyd had already done it.
Virgie looked at the clock again, slapped her dish towel against her thigh, and said she meant it about them being late. Dalton grabbed up books and tablets and scooted out, letting the screen door slap twice against the door frame. Boyd went over and gave his mother a quick peck on her cheek that made her grin and slap his back with her towel. Then he leaned down and kissed the top of Talmage's head.
Finally, for some reason that Virgie would never be able to explain in the seven decades that would be left to her, Boyd rubbed his hand gently along one of Talmage's thick casts and told his mother to never whip those legs.CHAPTER 2
What people called New London was not really a town at all, at least not officially. The residents of the small settlement of London had to go to nearby Overton, which was really no great burden since it was all of three miles away, to mail a letter or receive one, so somebody filled out the necessary paperwork to apply for a post office. In due course the government denied the request because a London, Texas, already existed, west of Austin in Kimble County, near Junction. So the apparently illegitimate Londoners simply marched several hundred yards due north, near where the new consolidated school had been built in 1932, and christened the place New London. By 1937 everybody used the new name, but the post office wouldn't be built until a year later.
That there was a London at all, new or old, was because the men who farmed and worked in sawmills needed somewhere to live and raise their families.
It was born because of timber and farming, but its new prosperity was owing to oil.
The East Texas field had been discovered in 1930 when a wildcatter named Columbus Marion "Dad" Joiner drilled the Daisy Bradford #3, the first two wells of that name having proven to be dusters. The third time was most definitely the charm and by 1937 so many wells were dug that woodlands and pastures and towns were covered with thousands of derricks, each housing a pulsating pump that ran continuously.
In Kilgore, the town with the good fortune to be located directly above the richest lode, the derricks were so thick downtown that they became hazards to navigation. Roads that had been in place for decades had to be rerouted; stores had to be pulled down and built in other places. The faithful attended Sunday morning services and Wednesday night prayer meetings in churches surrounded by derricks, and sang hymns as the pumps thumped along like so many giant metronomes.
New London, nine miles southwest of Kilgore, didn't have as many derricks as its larger neighbor. But it had plenty.
Anyone having heard the town's name and expecting to find a quaint New England village filled with steep-roofed cottages, ivy covered chimneys, and an abundance of narrow steeples pointing heavenward would have been disappointed. The wood frame houses and stores that made up the place were almost universally utilitarian, having been constructed because of the lumber trade. Then, when the oil fields came in, the economy had taken a giant leap forward—ironically, less than a year after the stock market crash—but the architecture and ambiance had stayed put. Big oil corporations came in and slapped together company houses quickly, each plain structure a cookie cutter duplicate of those on either side of it.
In other parts of the world, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had just been sworn in for a second term and his New Deal was having difficulty finding its feet, the Spanish Civil War was raging, and Hitler was rubbing his small hands together, ready to gobble up Europe. The Hindenburg was making regular trans-Atlantic crossings, and Shirley Temple was the top box office draw.
None of this meant very much to the residents of Rusk County, except perhaps the bit about Shirley Temple. Most folks occasionally drove into Henderson or Kilgore or Tyler to see a picture show.
One family had recently made the long trek over to Dallas and came back telling of a new contraption called an automat, where you could plug a coin into a slot, open a little glass door, and lift out a ham sandwich or a wedge of pie. The women found it interesting. But most of the men figured having somebody sit hot food in front of them on a table was preferable.
At half past seven on the morning of Thursday, March 18, most of the men of New London were at work in the oil fields; their wives were going about their morning chores.
And their children were making their way to school.CHAPTER 3
In Tyler, the largest of East Texas's towns and twenty-five miles west of New London, Mother Mary Ambrose Krueger, the resident superior of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, was going over the particulars of what would be a very long day.
The order's brand new facility would be dedicated the next afternoon, March 19, the Feast Day of Saint Joseph, and blessed by Bishop Joseph Patrick Lynch of Dallas. Then the keys to Mother Francis Hospital would be ceremoniously handed over to Mother Mary Ambrose by the state director of the Works Progress Administration—FDR's famous WPA, which built the imposing edifice—and its doors would open to the public for the first time.
It was a handsome, white four-story building on a hilltop, modeled after the Duke University hospital in Durham, North Carolina, with sixty beds, modern surgical and treatment facilities, and an ornate chapel. It would be the largest hospital between Dallas and New Orleans, and would provide medical attention to a geographical area the size of several northeastern states combined.
But all of that would start after the big doings planned for the next day. The bishop would preside, assisted by the pastor of Tyler's Immaculate Conception parish, over the dedication and consecration, which would be attended by local civic leaders and a couple of legislators coming up by train from Austin. Mother Mary Regina, the Provincial Superior, was due to arrive in the early afternoon and, shortly after that, a florist would deliver big arrangements of fresh-cut flowers for the lobby and the chapel.
There was already a stack of congratulatory telegrams on Mother Mary Ambrose's desk from communities of nuns from her order throughout the nation, along with a couple from Rome. One was from Mother Mary Lauretta Lubowidzka, the Superior General of the order, and another conveyed the paternal and apostolic benediction of Pope Pius the Eleventh, signed by his Secretary of State Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who in two years' time would become Pope Pius the Twelfth.
On this early morning the superintendent of the new hospital and her staff had a good many things to see to. And Mother Mary Ambrose, who could be something of a taskmaster when it was called for, figured today it was called for.
So she went over her list once more with the sixteen nodding nuns and ten graduate nurses who had already heard the recitation several times in the last few days.CHAPTER 4
W.C. Shaw, the superintendent of the London Consolidated School District, stood at his office window and watched the Abercrombie boys cross the wide front lawn with other children who walked from their homes in town. Those who lived out in the country filed out of a line of yellow buses parked on the narrow road that ran between the junior high and high school building and the elementary school.
Mr. Shaw was a beanpole of a man, always dapper in a three-piece suit and perfectly knotted tie. He wore a handsome fedora all the time when he was outside, and never indoors, which was the commonly observed rule in a time when most men wore hats. Thick wire-rimmed spectacles added to his overall stoic visage.
He watched the younger Abercrombie boy follow along after his big brother like a rowboat in the wake of a sleeker, speedier craft. Boyd, the older one, was already talking to whoever he had fallen in beside. He might even, Mr. Shaw thought as he squinted to see better, be singing.
The superintendent allowed himself a moment of quiet contemplation before the first bell sounded. It would be a busy day. Tomorrow there would be no school because many of his students would be competing in athletic and academic events at the county meet held every spring in Henderson, the county seat. Today teachers and coaches would be utilizing every moment they could find to make sure their charges were ready.
The Parent-Teacher Association would meet in the gymnasium in the afternoon, which meant Mr. Shaw was expected to go over there before the meeting and drink some punch, eat a cookie, watch some sort of dance or skit put on by an elementary class, and then say a few words and answer a multitude of questions.
He looked at the blue horizon over the dark woods in the hills, then his eyes searched beyond the buildings and rooftops of the town for the first white blossoms of dogwoods. Out there, not much more than a stone's throw from his school, was primeval forest—as yet uncleared except by oil companies to drill new wells—that covered sleeping hills and steep bluffs over creeks. The pine needle-covered ground in the densest parts was dark as night all the time, full of white-tailed deer and occasional wild hogs. In what seemed like eons ago he had bounded through those woods with other boys his age, chasing yapping dogs after raccoons. Now his youngest son, Sam, who had come in just a few minutes before to get his lunch money before rushing off to class, did too.
Mr. Shaw had been the superintendent at nearby Minden before the oil field was discovered, when timber had been the only industry, and schools had muddled along on pitifully small budgets. Then the deep wells were dug and the big companies had steadily pulled prime grade crude up from prehistoric reservoirs, which meant Rusk County had benefited greatly. Even in the midst of the current depression, which had not yet been paired with the adjective "great."
The influx of oilfield workers and their families, most of them having come from other places, had meant a new school would be needed to accommodate a student population many times larger than had attended the small, old, two-story schoolhouse in Overton. So the London Consolidated District had been created in 1932 and Mr. Shaw was appointed superintendent.
Excerpted from My Boys and Girls Are in There by Ron Rozelle. Copyright © 2012 Ron Rozelle. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
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Table of Contents
Part One "My Boys and Girls",
Part Two Like Somebody Had Lifted the Lid off a Kettle,
Part Three The Long Silence,
Part Four Speaking Their Names,
Author's Notes and Acknowledgments,
Lake Jackson, Texas
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book reads as though the author were there. It is a well written and easily read book that frequently brought me close to tears. I recommend to everyone even though it is often difficult to take because of the horror of the true story.