Vintage: Natural gas explosion at New London school in Texas, US
In March 1937 a gas leak in the basement of the 1 200-student Consolidated School in New London, Texas, caused a massive explosion that killed almost 300 children and teachers. It was the worst school disaster in US history. So chaotic was the scene that an exact count of the dead was impossible, although the tally of the injured was pegged at 184. In a grim irony, the blast was caused by a petroleum product that had greatly enriched the small town just east of Tyler. In the rubble, rescuers found a blackboard still bearing one teacher’s message for the day: “Oil and natural gas are East Texas’ greatest mineral blessings. Without them this school would not be here and none of us would be here learning our lessons.” On 18 March 1937, students in the first through fourth grades had been dismissed as usual at two-thirty. Shortly after three o’ clock, according to witnesses, “the ground bounced” and they saw “a giant cloud rising” and heard “a terrible roar.” Hundreds of horrified relatives rushed to the school; some 1 500 oil workers helped clear debris, recover bodies and search for survivors. Garages, churches and even the roller rink were used as makeshift hospitals and morgues.
Thousands of people turned out to help, to gawk, to sell tombstones and insurance and, in the case of a young Walter Cronkite, to cover the story. Governor James Allred declared martial law to regulate traffic and rescue efforts. The many messages of condolence included a telegram from Adolph Hitler.
Critics levelled charges of negligence against the school’s officials, who had eliminated its monthly gas bill by tapping, with permission, into a Parade Gasoline Company line. Ultimately, though, federal investigators blamed a faulty connection and inadequate ventilation in the basement, where the flipping of an electrical switch in the shop room was believed to have ignited the gas.
Aid poured in from outside the area. Governor James Allred dispatched Texas Rangers, highway patrol and the Texas National Guard. 30 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. In their desperation to get victims and survivors out of the rubble, many rescuers did not immediately check if the body they came across was alive or dead.
Rescuers worked through night and rain and 17 hours later, the entire site had been cleared. Many who worked in the rescue were overcome with shock as one survivor recounted; "Daddy worked so long he almost had a nervous breakdown. As long as he was working he was fine but as soon as he came home and sat down he'd start shaking."
Buildings in the neighbouring communities of Henderson, Overton, Kilgore and as far away as Tyler and Longview were converted into makeshift first aid tents and 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.
Most of the bodies were either burned beyond recognition or blown to pieces. Most were identified by clothing or personal items, such as a boy who was identified by the presence of the pull string from his favourite shirt in his jeans pocket. A student survivor recounted being in a makeshift morgue, "I saw fathers fight over dead children like dogs over a bone, yelling 'That's mine!' 'No, mine!' I saw children who looked like roadkill, you couldn't tell if it was a boy, girl or what." Horror stories abound. One family lost all three children; one mother could positively identify her ten-year-old’s body only because the little girl, while playing dress-up the night before, had used a crayon to colour her toenails red.
Fingerprinting experts were brought in to take fingerprints from bodies that were disfigured by the explosion. This method of identification was available as many of the surrounding area had been fingerprinted at the Texas Centennial Exposition the previous summer.
Although dozens of grieving families filed lawsuits against the school district, a judge dismissed those that came to trial; no official was held liable and no fine was ever levied. Within two months, however, the Texas Legislature had passed a law requiring refiners to add a scent to natural gas, which is otherwise odour-free. Today, because of the familiar stink of a chemical called mercaptan, another tragedy like New London is far less likely to occur.
Source: Texas Monthly and Wikipedia