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Remembering the Tragedy at New London School, 75 Years Ago PDF  ICON_SEP Print ICON_SEP  E-mail
Written by Mary McDonald   
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newlondonmonumentOn Highway 42, in the center divide between the London Museum and the West Rusk High School, is an impressive 32-ft. monument dedicated to 269 students, 16 teachers, and 8 other individuals whose lives were cut short on Thursday, March 18, 1937, at 3:17 p.m. when an explosion destroyed the four year old school building in New London, Texas.

  Seventy-five years have passed and most of the people who “remembered” are also gone. 

  Yet, even as time goes on, the tragedy will always be part of Texas history. 

  In 1937, New London, Texas was one of the richest rural school districts in America.  With oil fields booming, the community had built a beautiful, modern, steel framed, e-shaped school building four years earlier.

  March 18, 1937 appeared to be a routine day for the school with plans for an interscholastic meet the next day.  Younger school children had already boarded buses and were headed home. 

  However, it was anything but routine. At 3:17 p.m., just minutes before the school day’s end, the building exploded. 

  The widely held belief is that Lemmie R. Butler turned on a sanding machine causing a spark that ignited a vast pool of natural gas and air, which had collected beneath the building.

newlondonschool The building was said to have lifted in the air before it smashed back to the ground, collapsing walls and the roof.  Victims were buried beneath a mass of brick, steel, and concrete.

  Within 15 minutes, the news had spread. Frantic parents, 1,500 roughnecks from the oilfield, Texas Rangers – ordered in by Governor James Allred, and highway patrol all descended quickly on the wreckage.

  Hospitals from Dallas, Nacogdoches, Wichita Falls, and the United State Army Air Corps in Louisiana; Sheriff’s deputies from Overton, Henderson, and Kilgore; Red Cross; Salvation Army; and even the Boy Scouts pitched in. 

  In fact, a new modern hospital, Mother Mary Frances Hospital of Tyler, opened a day early to care for victims.  The opening ceremonies that had been planned for the following day never happened. 

  Oil Companies, such as Gulf Pipe Line, Sinclair, and Humble came to assist, as did the International-Great Northern Railroad.

  In spite of nightfall and rain, within 17 hours, all the victims and the debris had been taken from the site.

  The Texas Funeral Directors sent twenty-five embalmers.  The dead received individual caskets, graves, and religious services.

  Miraculously, 130 students escaped serious bodily injury. Many were outside for a P.E. class. These were the ones left to “remember,” along with parents, grandparents, and others whose lives were forever altered that day.

  The stories, that have been told and retold, did not surface until a 1977 School Reunion – the first since the tragedy.  Prior to that time, a “wall of silence” surrounded New London; no one asked about the tragedy, and no one volunteered information.

  Here are a few of the stories:

  --Bus driver Lonnie Barber bravely carried the kids on his bus home before going back to look for his own four children; one of which died.

  --One child was identified, by his brother, only by the presence of a top’s pull string.

  --A mother had a heart attack and died when she found out only parts of her daughter’s body were found. 

  From the tragedy, at least one lesson was learned.  Natural gas is both odorless and colorless so the leak was not detected.  The Texas Legislature ordered a special additive be put in natural gas so today it has a bad smell, making a leak quickly known.

  It seems this disaster had an impact on the life of Christine Watson Marsters of Stewards Mill Community in Freestone County, Texas. 

  After the death of her father, the family was planning a move to New London where other of her mother’s family lived. She had not yet enrolled in the school on that day.

    Call it the hand of God or fate, Christine was in different place that day, so destiny took a different turn.

  Christine’s family did move to New London the following year where she graduated from New London high school years later. 

  According to her cousin, Clo McGill, “The temporary building where we attended classes was in clear view of the site, so we saw it every day.”  She went on to say that several of the students who survived were on crutches and many had scars on their faces from the burns.

  The tragedy was one that was near young Christine’s heart, and she has spoken of it often.  

  Life did continue on after March 18, 1937.  The school, eventually renamed West Rusk Consolidated ISD, has approximately 1,000 students today. 

  West Rusk High School sits on the same spot where the tragedy took place. 

  The 2-A school boasts of an award winning “Sweepstakes” Band and two players that will be competing in state Solo and Ensemble.

  Their golf team recently placed 2nd at the Longview Tournament, and the football team went three rounds toward the State playoffs last year. 

  Several athletics made “All Region” in sports, and their FFA program is very active.

  The school recently passed a $4 million bond that will provide a new multi-purpose building, athletic facilities, new cafeteria, and classrooms.

  Still, the community remembers - the football stadium, which will be ready for the “Raiders” next year, will have a commemorative marker placed at the 37-yard line.

  Those, whose lives were lost 75 years ago, will be revered on Sunday, March 18, 2012 from 10:00 a.m. – noon at the London Museum, New London, Texas.