On March 18, 1937, in New London, Texas, a gas explosion killed more than 300 students, teachers and visitors while they were in the supposed safe haven of a new state-of-the-art public school. It was considered by many to be the richest rural school district in the nation. No expense had been spared except when it came to safety.
What Went Wrong?
To save money the school board substituted a gas system for the steam system. They had ignored the architects' warnings that the building had not been designed to vent gas fumes. Then, the school board decided to hook-up to a free residue gas line while school and oil company officials agreed to look the other way.
Even though the gas had no odor, there were reports that students had headaches and burning eyes from gas fumes in their classrooms. One account describes students sitting in a classroom with jackets on and windows open to vent the fumes.
On March 18, thirteen minutes before school dismissal, a shop teacher flipped a switch to turn on a power sander and a spark set off a gas explosion.
The official Court of Inquiry acknowledged a series of design, building and operations problems, and unheeded warnings, yet named no one responsible. They concluded that school officials were just "average individuals, ignorant or indifferent to the need for precautionary measures, where they cannot, in their lack of knowledge, visualize a danger or a hazard." (Court of Inquiry, 1937.)
The disaster resulted in a law that required adding a warning odor to natural gas, thus saving millions of lives all over the world.
The Unfinished Legacy
Other important recommendations of the 1937 Court of Inquiry have yet to be implemented in most 21st century schools:
1) schools need technically trained administrators for modern school systems,
2) schools need to do rigid inspections and more widespread public education about managing hazards, and
3) schools need a comprehensive, rational safety code.
A Case Study and Cautionary Tale
The story of the 1937 Texas School Explosion needs to be part of our national legacy because the decision-making that led to the 1937 explosion is the same type of decision-making in schools today.
The story can inspire us to break the silence about school hazards and to prioritize the values and technical skills we need to live safely with 21st century chemicals and technology.
Let it prompt you to take action to save lives in today's schools where explosives and other hazardous materials in labs, closets and storerooms are routinely ignored.
- The London Museum
- 2012 Texas School Tragedy Remembered 75 Years Later Voice of America. It led to new safety requirements for natural gas around the world. Yet the tragedy itself is not very well remembered today.
- Today a generation died From dallasobserver.com Originally published by Dallas Observer 2002-02-21 ©2005 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved. "Today, a Generation Died." Revisiting the story of the 1937 New London gas explosion--the worst tragedy involving schoolchildren in American history, by Carlton Stow.
- When Even Angels Wept Trailer online. A documentary film by Kristin Beauchamp includes interviews of those who lived to tell their story from that fateful day. Year after year may pass, but their ageless recollections still stand the test of time.
- National Fire Prevention Association http://www.nfpa.org/assets/files/PDF/London_Texas_School_1937.pdf
- March 18, 1937 The Day The Clock Stood Still Robert Hilliard's website includes Articles, Photos, etc.
- Gone at 3:17 David M. Brown, a veteran journalist and former long-time staff writer at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, is at work on a book titled Gone at 3:17 -- The Untold Story of the Worst School Disaster in American History. Michael Wereschagin, a reporter at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review who has covered several contemporary disasters, has teamed with Brown to write the first definitive account of the New London school explosion. Excerpts online.
- THE DETROIT NEWS, Detroit, Michigan, March 19, 1937 http://www.rarenewspapers.com/view/581247