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New London Disaster 75th anniversary

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POSTED: Friday, March 16, 2012 - 7:12pm

UPDATED: Tuesday, May 7, 2013 - 1:11pm

“That’s me and my older brother. He was killed in the explosion.”
“How old were you then?”
“When the school blew up, I was 7 in the 2nd grade.”
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.
“My homeroom was over on the corner, and my teacher that morning told us, that something was burning her eyes. We know now what it was.”
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…
“Something happened and it was like I had fallen asleep. And I thought, if I can just scream, I’ll wake up.”
Mary Lou Taylor, Bobbie Kate Meyers and Mary Lou Moring were students there.
“The next thing I knew, I woke up screaming and was on my way to the doctor.”
“I was walking to the cafeteria when the explosion happened.”
I was in my 7th grade math class, Miss Alda Pfeiffer’s class. And of course, the windows were blown out. And when this happened, for some reason, I just went down in the aisle. The roof came down and just laid down like a big sheet on the desks. But I crawled out and jumped from there down to the ground.”


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.
Because of random chance, and opposite circumstances. One brother lived, and one died.
“My brother told me to go tell the bus that we weren’t going to school that day. And, so when my Dad came home, he couldn’t believe that there was not going to be any school that day. So, he put us in the car and brought us to school. And he grieved until the last breath he had in him about it was his fault that my brother, you know.”
“I did have an older brother who did not go to school that day. We had just gotten electricity at our house, and my mother had a washing machine. And it needed to be changed to an AC motor. And my brother was 14, so he said, well I can do it better than Daddy can. So he was changing the motor on the washing machine and missed the buss. Mother thought about letting him take the car to school and she decided, well it won’t hurt him. And that’s what saved him.”
And if you want to see where the memories are still in evidence, you come here to the Pleasant Hill Cemetary.
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.
Sunday is the 75th 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 March.
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.
“No, you wanted to be over here because all this section was destroyed.”
“Well I do think, and I ask sometimes…why? But one of these days we’ll know.”
 

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By the way, this was the first big assignment that Walter Cronkite was sent out on from his new job in Dallas as a cub reporter for the United Press. http://www.newlondonschool.org/Recollections05.htm

I believe at the New London School museum I was told that 17 laws that affected natural gas were enacted by the Texas Legislature and put into effect after the school explosion, not just two as was reported in this article. If you have never been to the museum in New London, it is well worth a trip to see it....only make sure that you bring plenty of tissues. I have a copy of the LIFE magazine that came out soon after that day that carries this story in it. Very, very sad.

My Aunt Fedelia Lee Jones died that day,Uncel Leaon was took from school early to see the dentist. she asked to stay to take a test. So my Grandmother too never forgave her self for letting her stay.
When she ran out of the school she ran along side the building instead of straight out, the building came down on her, 4months to the day she would have turned 12. My father, Felton Jones, her brother was born Sep. 11, 1937. my name is Fedelia Lee Jones, I am named for the sister he never knew.

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