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1937 Schoolhouse Explosion 'Scars Your Mind' : Texas Town Haunted by Blast That Killed a Generation

March 22, 1987|WILLIAM H. INMAN | United Press International

NEW LONDON, Tex. — Half a century ago this month, a time when the redbuds bloom in Texas, thunder rolled from the belly of a brick schoolhouse and snatched away a generation of children.

"It's something that scars your mind--the screams, the cries--like some horrible disease you just can't shake," said Molly Ward, who was a fourth-grader at the time. She watched from a bus window as the New London school shook with a deafening bellow, then collapsed into a heap of bricks and dust and broken bodies.

At precisely 3:15 p.m. on March 18, 1937, time stopped for New London, population 1,200, then at the center of the world's greatest oil boom. A natural gas leak in the schoolhouse basement set off a blast that was heard as far away as the roughneck tent-camps of Kilgore and Tyler, 35 miles to the north.

The dead could not be counted. A cenotaph at the center of the town bears 294 names, but survivors say 300 would be a more accurate toll.

It was America's worst civilian disaster, and remained so until a firestorm swept the docks of Texas City 10 years later, but this small-town tragedy held a special terror. It was selective death, the last and cruelest plague of Moses. More than 270 of the dead were children; a whole generation had been wiped out.

Survivor Lost Peers

"I have thought many times how my life was made different," said Bill Thompson, a retired factory worker who lives across from the rebuilt school. "I thought about little things, like when I made the varsity (football team) when I shouldn't have.

"You see, my competition was all dead."

Despite the passing of time, the memory remains keen.

For Ward, images flash alive at the sound of spring thunder.

Thompson carries ghosts and guilt into his sleep each night. He had swapped desks with a fifth-grade classmate so he could flirt with Billie Sue Hall. Somebody died in the spot where he should have been, and he has never forgiven himself. "I've got pain, even today."

Jack Strickland nearly died, but recovered and got religion and became a preacher.

Ralph Carr got out of the oil business, never able to forget how his daughter stared back at him in her dead repose.

Helen Sillick still looks back on it as a dream.

"I remember being thrown up into the air like a toy, looking around me and seeing the parts of buildings floating in the air with me. I'm up above the school, I think to myself. I can see people walking around, screaming. I keep turning and spinning. Then darkness."

Witnesses remember, too.

"It still stands out in my memory, exceedingly vivid," Walter Cronkite, then a 20-year-old reporter for United Press in Dallas, has said. "It was the biggest civilian tragedy I covered in my life. Wars, of course, are another thing, but nothing else equaled it.

"We got down there, and it was one of the most ghastly scenes I ever saw. Those oil field workers whose children were buried there were sobbing as they tore away at the rubble with their bloodied hands, uncovering body after body."

White House correspondent Sarah McClendon, then a $10-a-week reporter on the Tyler Courier-Times, was one of the first news people on the scene.

"I'll never forget seeing the bones of a little girl, picked as clean as a whistle, clean as if they had been boiled," she said. "She was probably never identified. The blast literally tore the flesh from her bones."

World leaders wired their condolences. One came from Adolf Hitler: "I want to assure your excellency of the German people's sincere sympathy," he cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

To save money for winter heat, the school had tapped into a line of raw natural gas coming up from the oil fields. The odorless gas had filled a crawl space beneath the school complex. It took only one spark.

An official inquiry blamed the disaster on a sparking electrical sander. Teacher Lemmie Butler had gone down to a basement classroom to put a few finishing touches on a shop project.

Two months after the disaster, the state passed a law against pumping natural gas without a pungent odorant additive.

How did the gas come to seep into the underpinnings of the school? Nobody knows. Perhaps a valve was left open. Perhaps there was a pipeline fracture. There were hints of sabotage, but nothing was proved.

The mystery resurfaced 24 years later, when an Oklahoma City ex-convict and mental patient told police that he had caused the explosion. William Estel Benson, a student at the time, said he had unscrewed gas pipes beneath the school, hoping to run up the gas bill. He was angry, he said. The principal had chewed him out for smoking.

He had details, including specifications on the pipe never made public. Benson had helped his stepfather install the school plumbing system. "My stepfather owned a pipe yard and I worked with him," said Benson, a convicted burglar. "I knew plenty about oil and gas pipes, but I didn't really intend to kill anybody."

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