New London (KETK) — — After 76 years, the hundreds of victims of the New London School explosion live mainly in the memories of those who survived the fateful day.
But with each passing anniversary, their number is fewer.
On Saturday, the New London Ex-students Reunion and Memorial Service at West Rusk County Consolidated Independent School District focused on those memories from March 18, 1937, when a natural gas leak led to the schoolhouse explosion that killed almost 300 students and teachers.
As the ceremony began, survivors were asked to stand. Although hundreds were on hand for the service, only a handful got to their feet, a reminder of the dwindling number of survivors whose memories are the last living connections to that day.
Miles Toler, president of the London Ex-students Reunion and Memorial Association and emcee of Saturday’s ceremony, said the direct recollections of the explosion are being lost, increasingly living only in videos and stories handed down by survivors.
“The fewer the survivors we have, we are having to draw more on the memories and recordings and not our own recollections,” Toler said.
The ceremony included gospel music, a memory book of those killed in the explosion, a speech comparing the plight of Job in the Bible to this Rusk County town after the catastrophe and recognition of former students of the school.
Mary Lou Taylor was a seventh-grader when the school exploded. To this day, she said, she remembers vividly the day and her friends. Taylor said she returns to the memorial every two years to remember friends lost and to see familiar faces.
“Lest we forget, we don’t want to forget them,” she said. “It is important for me to come to see all the old faces. But there aren’t that many of them my age anymore.”
Taylor echoed a theme of the 76th memorial service.
“The explosion united the town,” she said. “It is the axis that brings us together.”
Don Maxwell, who was a third-grader the day the school exploded, said he comes from Jacksonville to the reunion and memorial service each time it is held.
Maxwell said he was in front of another building when the explosion that took his sister’s life rocked the campus.
“It was just like yesterday,” Maxwell said of his memories. “It’s important to remember and never forget.”
The explosion remains the worst school disaster in American history. It is the third-deadliest disaster in the history of Texas after the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and the 1947 Texas City Disaster.
In addition to the reunion and memorial service, former New London students could have lunch, celebrate with their classmates and dinner and dancing Saturday night at the Henderson Civic Center. It all gave survivors and other alumni a chance to create new memories to go with those from 76 years ago.