The New London School explosion occurred on March 18, 1937, when a natural gas leak caused an explosion, destroying the London School of New London, Texas, a community in Rusk County previously known as "London". The disaster killed more than 295 students and teachers, making it the deadliest school disaster in American history. As of 2017, the event is the third deadliest disaster in the history of Texas, after the 1900 Galveston hurricane, and the 1947 Texas City disaster.
In the mid-1930s, the Great Depression was in full swing, but the London school district was one of the richest in America. A 1930 oil find in Rusk County had boosted the local economy and educational spending grew with it. The London School, a large structure of steel and concrete, was constructed in 1932 at a cost of $1 million (roughly $17.9 million today). The London Wildcats (a play on the term "wildcatter", for an oil prospector) played football in the first stadium in the state to have electric lights.
The school was built on sloping ground and a large air space was enclosed beneath the structure. The school board had overridden the original architect's plans for a boiler and steam distribution system, instead opting to install 72 gas heaters throughout the building.
Early in 1937, the school board cancelled their natural gas contract and had plumbers install a tap into Parade Gasoline Company's residue gas line to save money. This practice—while not explicitly authorised by local oil companies—was widespread in the area. The natural gas extracted with the oil was considered a waste product and was flared off. As there was no value to the natural gas, the oil companies turned a blind eye. This "raw" or "wet" gas varied in quality from day to day, even from hour to hour.
Untreated natural gas is both odourless and colourless, so leaks are difficult to detect and may go unnoticed. Gas had been leaking from the residue line tap and built up inside the enclosed crawlspace that ran the entire 253-foot (77 m) length of the building's facade. Students had been complaining of headaches for some time, but little attention had been paid to the issue.
March 18 was a Thursday. Friday's classes were cancelled to allow students to participate in the neighbouring city of Henderson's Interscholastic Meet, a scholastic and athletic competition. Following the school's normal schedule, first through fourth grade students had been let out early. A PTA meeting was being held in the gymnasium, a separate structure roughly 100 feet (30 m) from the main building.
At 3:17 p.m., Limmie R. Butler (an "instructor of manual training") turned on an electric sander. It is believed that the sander's switch caused a spark that ignited the gas-air mixture.
Reports from witnesses state that the walls of the school bulged, the roof lifted from the building and then crashed back down, and the main wing of the structure collapsed. The force of the explosion was so great that a two-ton concrete block was thrown clear off the building and crushed a 1936 Chevrolet parked 200 feet away. Approximately 500 students and 40 teachers were in the building at the time.
The explosion was its own alarm, heard for miles. The most immediate response was from parents at the PTA meeting. Within minutes, area residents started to arrive and began digging through the rubble, many with their bare hands. Roughnecks from the oil fields were released from their jobs and brought with them cutting torches and heavy equipment needed to clear the concrete and steel.
School bus driver Lonnie Barber was transporting elementary students to their homes and was in sight of the school as it exploded. Barber continued his two-hour route, returning children to their parents before rushing back to the school to look for his four children. His son Arden died, but the others were not seriously injured. Barber retired the next year.
Aid poured in from outside the area. Governor James Allred dispatched Texas Rangers, highway patrol, and the Texas National Guard. Thirty doctors, 100 nurses, and 25 embalmers arrived from Dallas. Airmen from Barksdale Field, deputy sheriffs, and even Boy Scouts took part in the rescue and recovery.
Of the more than 600 people in the school, only about 130 escaped without serious injury. Estimates of the number of dead vary from 296 to 319 but that number could be much higher as many of the residents of New London at the time were transient oilfield workers, and there is no way to determine how many volunteers collected the bodies of their children in the days following the disaster and returned them to their respective homes for burial. Most of the bodies were either burned beyond recognition, or blown to pieces. It was thought that one mother had a heart attack and died when she found out that her daughter died, with only part of her face, her chin and a couple of bones recovered, but this story was found to be untrue when both mother and daughter were found alive. Another boy was identified by the presence of the pull string from his favourite shirt in his jeans pocket.
Rescuers worked through night and rain, and 17 hours later, the entire site had been cleared. Buildings in the neighbouring communities of Henderson, Overton, Kilgore and as far away as Tyler and Longview were converted into makeshift morgues to house the enormous number of bodies, and everything from family cars to delivery trucks served as hearses and ambulances. A new hospital, Mother Frances Hospital in nearby Tyler, was scheduled to open the next day, but the dedication was cancelled and the hospital opened immediately.
Reporters who arrived in the city found themselves swept up in the rescue effort. Former Dallas Times Herald executive editor Felix McKnight, then a young AP reporter, recalled, "We identified ourselves and were immediately told that helpers were needed far more than reporters." Walter Cronkite also found himself in New London on one of his first assignments for UPI. Although Cronkite went on to cover World War II and the Nuremberg trials, he was quoted as saying decades later, "I did nothing in my studies nor in my life to prepare me for a story of the magnitude of that New London tragedy, nor has any story since that awful day equalled it."
Not all of the buildings on the 10-acre (4.0 ha) campus were destroyed. The surviving gymnasium was quickly converted into multiple classrooms. Inside tents and modified buildings, classes resumed ten days later.
The majority of the victims of the explosion are buried at Pleasant Hill Cemetery, near New London.
Adolf Hitler, who was the German Chancellor at the time, paid his respects in the form of a telegram, a copy of which is on display at the London Museum.
Experts from the United States Bureau of Mines concluded that the connection to the residue gas line was faulty. The connection had allowed gas to leak into the school, and since natural gas is invisible and is odourless, the leak was unnoticed. The sanding machine's switch is believed to have caused a spark that ignited the gas-air mixture. To reduce the damage of future leaks, the Texas Legislature began mandating within weeks of the explosion that thiols (mercaptans) be added to natural gas. The strong odour of many thiols makes leaks quickly detectable. The practice quickly spread worldwide.
Shortly after the disaster, the Texas Legislature met in emergency session and enacted the Engineering Registration Act (now rewritten as the Texas Engineering Practice Act). Public pressure was on the government to regulate the practice of engineering due to the faulty installation of the natural gas connection; Carolyn Jones, a nine-year-old survivor, spoke to the Texas Legislature about the importance of safety in schools. The use of the title "engineer" in Texas remains legally restricted to those who have been professionally certified by the state to practice engineering.
A lawsuit was brought against the school district and the Parade Gasoline Company, but the court ruled that neither could be held responsible. Superintendent W. C. Shaw was forced to resign amid talk of a lynching. Shaw lost a son and his niece in the explosion.
A new school was completed in 1939 on the property, directly behind the location of the destroyed building. The school remained known as the London School until 1965 when London Independent School District consolidated with Gaston Independent School District, the name was changed to West Rusk High School, and the mascot was changed to the Raiders.