NEW LONDON, Texas (KETK) – On March 18, 1937, an explosion happened at the New London school in Rusk County, killing 298 students and teachers.
It is known as the worst school disaster in the United States, according to the Texas State Historical Association.
Over 500 people were in the building when the explosion occurred which happened when a teacher turned on a sanding machine and inadvertently ignited a mixture of gas and air. The explosion was heard from four miles away. The roof of the school caved in and buried the victims in a pile of brick, steel, and concrete debris.
Within 15 minutes, news of the explosion was relayed across Texas. Community residents from the oil field came with heavy-duty equipment to rescue survivors. Within an hour, Gov. James Allred sent the Texas Rangers and highway patrol to aid in the search. Doctors and medical supplies came from across the state including the United States Army Corps.
Within 17 hours, all victims and debris had been cleared from the site, according to the Texas State Historical Association.
Upon investigation, officials learned that the school board and superintendent had authorized plumbers to tap a residue gas line to save $300 in expenses per month. School officials said the use of “green” or “wet” gas was a frequent money-saving practice.
The explosion was caused after green gas, which has no smell, escaped from a faulty connection and accumulated beneath the building.
More than 70 lawsuits were filed for damages, but district Judge Robert T. Brown dismissed the few cases that lacked evidence. No school officials were found liable.
Public pressure forced the resignation of the superintendent, who had lost a son in the explosion.
The thirty surviving seniors finished their year in temporary buildings while a new school was built on nearly the same site.
A cenotaph of Texas pink granite was erected in front of the new school in 1939 with the names of each victim.