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Survivors Recall Tragic Texas School Explosion

NEW LONDON, Texas (AP) — Billy Thompson's puppy love had risen on springtime's tide, and as he bustled into his last class of the day, the smitten fifth-grader suavely traded seats with a classmate to be near his sweetheart.

While his English teacher droned through the long afternoon of March 18, 1937, Thompson flirted and counted the minutes until the final bell.

Then came the blast, followed by tumbling concrete and steel. Buried in debris after an electric spark detonated natural gas that had collected in a crawl space beneath the building, Thompson thought Hitler had bombed the London School.

Snatched from the wreckage, the dazed and bleeding boy stumbled from the scene of the worst school disaster in American history. The thunderous explosion killed 293 students and teachers, including Ethel Dorsey, the girl with whom Thompson switched chairs. Of the approximately 500 fifth- through 11th-graders in the building at the time of the blast, only 130 escaped serious injury. Younger students attending class in a separate building - most were already on their bus - were not injured.

The farm hamlet-turned-oil-boomtown's tragedy shocked the world. Within weeks state lawmakers acted to prevent such carnage from ever happening again, mandating that normally odorless natural gas be scented with a pungent sulfur compound.

Thompson, racked by survivor's guilt, acceded to the town's unspoken decision to put the tragedy behind them, to speak of it rarely or not at all.

"Most everybody that survived carried a kind of hidden guilt," he said. "We didn't talk about it to others." Thompson bore his burden silently until 1977, when, in a dramatic turnaround, townsfolk decided to host a reunion for survivors and their families. That led him to phone the dead girl's brother, a call that brought long-sought peace of mind.

"He told me not to feel guilty about Ethel's death," Thompson said. "That her family felt what would be would be, and that it had been Ethel's time to go."

Next weekend, Thompson, now 87, will join hundreds of others at the town's rebuilt school to mark the calamity's 75th anniversary. A fading generation with vivid memories, they will study victims' names on Main Street's granite cenotaph, peruse explosion exhibits in the town museum, pray, eat barbecue and - most of all - give vent to long-buried feelings.

"Most of the people in this community are enormously kind," said Judith Susia, an oil field worker's daughter who attended the New London school in the 1950s. "After the explosion, they came together and protected one another from the curious. . They didn't make a nuisance of themselves over pain, weeping and drooping. The idea was that talking about it keeps it fresh. If you left it alone, it would scab over and heal."

Today, New London, population 998, is little more than a wide spot on Texas 42, a has-been oil town 12 miles south of Kilgore. Seventy-five years ago, it was far more lively. Starting with wildcatter Columbus "Dad" Joiner's 1930 gusher, the Daisy Bradford No. 3, New London oil production steadily grew through the Depression years. In 1937, it topped 170 million barrels.

"There still were a lot of active drilling rigs everywhere," said Marvin Dees, 96, who was among roughly 2,000 rescue workers who rushed to the devastated school. "There was one well for every five acres. From the school you could see steel derricks for miles around. The drilling rigs, the steam engines and pumps made a lot of noise. There were roads to every lease and crews going up and down. It was like a bee hive."

New London likely was the richest rural school district in the nation, said Miles Toler, director of the town museum, and the two-story, steel-framed E-shaped brick school was a proud $1 million emblem of the region's wealth.

"The school offered everything, and when you finished 11 grades you could come back for still more classes," Toler said. "In 1934, the school got the state's first lighted football stadium. . Basically, there was a feeling that there weren't any poor people. Just about everybody's dad worked for an oil company and had a good job."

New London may have been wealthy, but frugality still mattered. Thus, in January 1937, district officials elected to disconnect school gas pipes from a commercial provider, which cost $300 a month, and take up an oil company's offer of free "green" gas. Many homes in the area used the same fuel.

Later investigations revealed faulty plumbing had allowed the gas to fill a 56-by-253-foot crawl space under the school. At 3:17 p.m. on March 18, shop teacher Lemmie Butler turned on an electric sander, triggering the blast. The explosion lifted the school into the air, then dropped it with a crash. A two-ton chunk of concrete was propelled 200 feet.

In the aftermath, telegrams of condolence from around the world - including one from Adolf Hitler - flooded into the town. Locally, dozens of lawsuits were filed against the school district by grieving parents, but most were dismissed for lack of evidence. Within a short time of the blast, the site was cleared and construction started anew. A new school opened in 1939.

On the fatal morning, students at London School eagerly were anticipating the next day's "county meet" in Henderson, the county seat, where local students competed with their peers at other schools in assorted athletic events.

"We were kind of disappointed because we were supposed to have gotten out of school an hour early," Thompson said. "Just before the next-to-the-last period ended, they announced that we would go into the last class for the day."

Bobbie Cox, a second-grader, and her brother, Perry, who was in fifth grade, planned to skip school. The youngsters soon were intercepted by their father, who, after harsh words, delivered them to campus in his car.

Perry carried in his satchel that morning a poem he had written for English class. "Springtime is a very happy time," it began, "green grass and flowers appear." The homework never reached his teacher.

"I was between the cafeteria and the high school when the school blew up," Bobbie Cox Myers recalled. "I saw smoke. It looked like something you see on the news. . Everything was flying through the air - chalkboards, chairs. It didn't take long for total chaos."

A family friend who had been on campus for a parents' meeting spotted the girl and took her home. When word of Perry failed to materialize, the family launched a fruitless search of improvised morgues. That night, a neighbor told them that a boy carrying a pocketknife with a pearl handle, painted red, had been taken to the home of a nearby physician.

Such a knife, painted with his mother's nail polish, was among Perry's prized possessions. His parents found him near death. "He was nearly unconscious, but he could still call for my mother," Myers said. The doctor warned that Perry would soon die, and he did.

Homer White, 85, was grappling with a confounding fifth-grade math problem when the blast rocked the school.

"All the debris in the room was coming in," he recalled. "When it ended, it was dark. I was covered up somehow. . I heard some moaning, groaning. Then it was real quiet, and still dark. In the next couple of minutes I heard an adult lady screaming, a high-pitched scream. Lo and behold, she stepped on me, and fell in the hole with me."

White, one of his classroom's few survivors, was taken to the home of a Turnertown physician, who "stitched up my head like a football." Then a good Samaritan offered to drive him home. On the way, they encountered White's parents headed in the opposite direction.

The two cars stopped on the side of the road, "and my mother grabs me and shouts 'Hallelujah! Praise God!'?" White said. "And my dad, my dad had been looking at the dead ones for me. He stood there crying. I looked over from my mother and my dad had tears running down his face."

Back at home, White's mother washed his trousers and checkered shirt and carefully put them away. Today, along with Perry Cox's pocketknife and the personal effects of dozens of other victims, White's tattered little boy's clothing is displayed in the town museum.

Many years after the explosion, White's father shared with him details of that afternoon. Moving from corpse to corpse on the school grounds, the elder White had searched, knowing only that his son had been wearing a pair of old and mended boots.

"I found this body," the older man told his son, "and it had on high-topped boots. And I looked at those boots and I looked at that body and it didn't have a head. It was squished flat." Heart racing, White's father scrutinized the boy's boots.

They were new.

John Davidson, 71, never felt survivor's guilt. The explosion occurred four years before he was born, but it still left him with a lifelong feeling of discomfiture.

Davidson's 14-year-old sister, Ardyth, an eighth- grader, died in the blast.

"She was an only child, and Mother and Daddy weren't going to have any more kids," he said. "In reality, if this hadn't happened, I wouldn't have been born. She was an only child, and I was an only child."

Davidson's parents rarely spoke of his sister and kept few photos of her in the family home.

"The information was very limited," he said. "I didn't learn about my sister in depth until I was grown. I came to know her experiences by talking with people who knew her at the time."

Davidson was told that Ardyth had been multi-talented. She was in the school band, played softball and tap-danced.

The boy's parents compulsively worried about his welfare. On anniversaries of the explosion, Davidson's father pensively stared from his butcher shop window at the rebuilt school.

When Davidson was about 12, he happened upon a wooden box in a back storeroom. Prying off the lid, he found neatly folded inside the coat Ardyth had worn the day of her death. With it was the girl's diary.

"I closed it," he said, "and never looked at it again."

The box and its contents later were destroyed in a fire.


Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com


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