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76th anniversary of New London tragedy


POSTED: Monday, March 18, 2013 - 7:12pm

UPDATED: Monday, March 18, 2013 - 8:25pm

It's called New London now. But back in 1937, it was simply London, Texas.

And they were inordinately proud of their school. You see, this is oil and gas country and the London School District was one of the richest in America.

The school design back in 1932, called for a boiler and steam heating system. But that was overruled…and 72 gas heaters were installed instead.

March 18th, 1937 was a Thursday. There was to be no school on Friday so students could attend an interscholastic meet in Henderson.

Early that year, the school tapped into the Parade Gasoline Company's line to save money. That tap, had a leak. But in its normal state, natural gas is odorless, so no one knew.

At 3:15, the school was almost over…classes were about to be dismissed…when Lemmie Butler, a shop teacher, turned on an electric sander. That's when the world ended…the leaking natural gas ignited destroying a huge section of the school.

It was and is the worst school disaster in America's history. In all 295 students and teachers died that day. Bobbie was asked to identify the dead.

And if you want to see where the memories are still in evidence, you come here to the Pleasant Hill Cemetery. Right here, on this quiet spot on highway 323, is where the town of London, Texas came to grieve, bury its dead and start to rebuild. Most of the just under 300 victims of the London school disaster were laid to rest right here, on Pleasant Hill.

And as you move among the headstones, it doesn't take long before you hit one section. And the sadness is etched in granite for all to see.

Today is the 76th anniversary of the explosion, but the survivors don't need an observance. When you drive into New London, the town is dominated by the monument to that day in May. And the beautiful modern school that stands where the old one fell.

Two things came of the disaster.  The Texas legislature mandated that thiols be added to natural gas to give it an unpleasant smell. And new standards for claiming the title of engineer were established. That was in response to the sloppy installation of the gas tap.

Those may be silver linings that saved other kids in other times, but for survivors, the loss is still fresh, and the wound is deep.

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