POSTED: Saturday, March 14, 2009 - 9:18pm
UPDATED: Wednesday, March 17, 2010 - 11:02am
NEW LONDON-It is considered the worst school disaster in U.S. history and it happened right here in East Texas.
On March 18, 1937 the New London school exploded after a leaky natural gas pipe was somehow ignited. Survivors of the blast came together Saturday to remember those who died. The incident killed 293 people.
Survivor Bill Thompson, 84, still lives in New London. That spring day, Thompson says he was sitting in Mrs. Wright's 5th grade English class. Before class had started, Thompson asked fellow classmate Ethel Dorsey to switch seats so he could flirt with another classmate. Ethel agreed.
After the explosion, Thompson was dug out of the rubble and walked away with only minor injuries. It wasn't until a few weeks later that Thompson returned to school. "That was when I really got the shock of my life," Thompson said. He said more than half of his classmates didn't make it, including Ethel. His classmates knew he had traded seats with somebody but didn't know who. Thompson didn't tell anyone it was Ethel for several decades. "I had accepted later in life that I didn't cause her death and I have come to accept that," he said. After years of blaming himself for her death, Thompson has been able to start the healing process.
Carolyn Jones was also in the 5th grade at New London in 1937. Jones said she and a friend survived the blast thanks to their teacher who pushed them out a window to safety. Jones' oldest sister and uncle didn't walk out that day. "I carried the survivor's guilt," Jones said. "I always felt that maybe the wrong one had died."
Shortly after the tragedy, Jones was able to be an instrument of change. Jones traveled to Austin and spoke to state representatives about the importance of safety in schools. Jones' speech helped four bills be passed, including adding odor to natural gas. "That was the one that was really important and I think it has saved lives," she said.
Both Thompson and Jones say they are determined to keep the memory of those 293 people who died alive for many years to come.