The Day a Generation Died
The following presentation was delivered at the 81st General Meeting on May 14, 2012, by R. Miles Toler. It has been edited for content and phrasing.
Speaker Bio: The 2012 winter issue of the National Board BULLETIN featured a riveting article about one of America's most deadly natural gas accidents, the New London School explosion of 1937. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the horrific explosion that claimed the lives of 294 incident victims, most of whom were children. Few realize there is a museum that houses hundreds of artifacts from that fateful day in March. The museum is located directly across the street from where the old school once stood and has since been rebuilt.
R. Miles Toler has served as volunteer museum director since 2005. Graduated with a bachelor of science in chemical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, Mr. Toler has served in a number of engineering capacities, most recently a process engineer with Sinclair Refining. He was employed for 34 years by the Reynolds Metals Company in a variety of positions that extended from process engineer to ISO 9000 coordinator.
The story of the New London School explosion is one of profound tragedy. As painful as it might be to revisit, it must be continually retold as a remembrance of nearly 300 victims. Mr. Toler's presentation is appropriately titled, "The Day a Generation Died."
MR. TOLER: It's my privilege to be here on behalf of the London Museum to specially thank the National Board for the opportunity to speak to you about the London School explosion. I want to really thank Paul Brennan and his group for the article in the BULLETIN. We are proud of it. I know you are, too.
It might surprise you to know that probably more of your members know more about the London School explosion than people in East Texas. People in East Texas do not know about it. I attended the school that replaced the one that blew up. It was rebuilt on the property behind the original school. I went there for 13 years, counting kindergarten. We never mention the explosion. We knew it happened, and that is the only thing we knew – that it happened.
Families and survivors for some reason just couldn't talk about what happened that day in 1937, and so I need to give you the background. Because when the school blew up in '37, nothing happened in the way of a healing process except by the people themselves who put their arms around each other and tried to heal.
For 40 years nothing ever happened. We had no memorial services. There was nothing in our textbooks to let us know what really happened. And finally in 1977, a group in East Texas decided they needed to get together, and they did. That was 40 years after the explosion. About 200 people came together. They talked about what happened. They got the healing process started. The media sought out the survivors. They wanted to know the story. It made good press for East Texas. And so the story got out. And every other year we have a reunion in which we honor those whose lives were taken.
In 1998 the museum opened. For 60 years parents kept the mementos of their children and then donated them to the museum so we could keep their stories alive – so that as you come through the museum you really know what happened. This past March marked 75 years since the original explosion. We had a special memorial service, and about 900 people showed up. It was the biggest audience we've ever had. We honored those whose lives were lost on the day a generation died.
Today I want to take you back to March 18th, 1937, to a small community in New London, Texas, the richest independent school district in the world. And this is what you would have seen on March 18th, 1937.
VIDEO: It is March 18th, 1937. The time is 3:17 p.m. School is almost over for the day. Soon the classrooms, now full, will be empty. The small community, the state, the nation, and the world – none were prepared for the explosion of accumulated gas under the school that occurred.
MR. TOLER: At 3:17, a generation died. The rescue scene represented a war zone. Oil field workers by the hundreds showed up to help. Parents showed up. Everybody came to New London to do what they could. What did those survivors and workers experience that very fateful day? I want you to visualize parents searching for their children, hoping against hope that their child was not among those that were killed. Listen to what some of them say:
Video: Rescue efforts continued for 17 hours. Over 3,000 workers removed 4 million pounds of debris searching for survivors and bodies. The grim total of deaths reached almost 300. The bodies and the survivors were taken to the hospitals of the surrounding communities. The decision to rebuild the school was made on March 24th, 1937.
WITNESS: My first thought was that the world had come to an end. That's how catastrophic it was.
WITNESS: And just as I sat down in my seat, I looked out the window, and that's when it hit. Like you might snap your finger here: Boom!
WITNESS: I saw people climbing – the walls were open, you know, to the air by that time, and people were climbing down through the walls covered with blood.
WITNESS: Dust was lying around, so I was asking, “Have you seen my sister Helen?” No. And I'd say, “Have you seen my brother, Doug?” No.
WITNESS: We finally uncovered a lady, a teacher, a young teacher. Her head was crushed. The desk and everything was there. That was a horrible sight.
WITNESS: I went by one kid, and he was a high school boy, and he said, Mr. Skreet, can you get this block off me? He had this big concrete block on his legs. I went and got two more guys to come help me, and we got a jack and picked it up. And he died right there.
WITNESS: And I must have looked at a hundred bodies, and I guess I was in such a state of shock I could not call a name ever.
WITNESS: That's what it takes to change a person, and tragedies will do it quicker than anything. God is shedding tears for the loss of those children.
MR. TOLER: I think those last words you heard really relayed the sadness of the day there in New London. Some families lost as many as three children. A lot of families lost their only child. Bill Thompson, whose picture you saw with the last statement, had his own special story. He was sweet on a young lady and he wanted to sit by her that afternoon, so he asked the girl to switch seats with him so he could sit by her. The explosion occurred, and within 10 days they were back at school, believe it or not. They started calling roll, and that's when he found out the girl who was in his seat was dead and he was not. And he kept that inside him for 40 years until the healing started. But as he said, you can imagine a 12-year-old, with the animosity and the feelings of the families in New London: I'm alive and she is not.
We look back at the events of March 18, 1937, and we have questions. What was the cause of this explosion? Did we learn from this disaster? Are we safer now? The original design of the New London School, built in 1932, cost a little over $300,000. So we didn't waste any money when we built the London School at that time. The original design was for a steam boiler external to the school with steam heat piped into the school. A salesman came through, talked them into putting in gas-fired heaters in each individual room, and so they did.
About two months before the school exploded, the school decided they would hook on to the free gas that flowed from the East Texas oil field country. Churches did it, homes did it, and everybody hooked on to it. So in order to save $300 a month – and we are looking at a 1930’s mentality about money –they would hook on to the free gas.
Needless to say, in 1937 there was no smell to natural gas. The gas was brought into the school under the front half of the building where there was a crawl space with a depth ranging from two to six feet, about 65,000 square feet in the front half of the school. The crawl space was used for storage. There was a door that opened into the shop. On that fateful afternoon, the door was open, and the shop teacher was testing a sander that he had been working on. Those who were in the shop that survived said they saw a small spark, and that was it, boom. And the whole front half of the school went up, and came back down.
An eight-inch slab of concrete was blown about 200 yards away into a car. To calculate the vast amount of energy that it took to do that, it was a big, big explosion. One of the ladies in the video lives in Lewiston, Idaho, now. Carolyn Jones was a third grader who lost a sister and an uncle. She was given a chance to go to Austin, Texas, to speak before the Texas legislature. This is some of what Carolyn said that afternoon as she stood before the legislature.
"Let me urge you, our law-making body, to make laws of safety so that it will not be possible for another explosion of this type to occur in the history of Texas schools. Our daddies and mothers, as well as teachers, want to know that when we leave our homes in the mornings to go to school, we will come out safe when our lessons are over."
The bill was introduced on March 22, 1937, requiring an odorant to be put into natural gas. On May 17th it was passed. Stricter building codes were put in force in Texas for schools and public buildings with no basements. What came out of this explosion was the smell that you now know. We have a device called the Peerless Odorizer on display in the museum. Donald Sillers, superintendent of Lone Star Gas, designed and invented the Peerless Odorizer in 1937. For three days he was on site there at the New London School explosion helping in the rescue efforts and seeing what was going on. His family came to our 75th memorial service, and his son said, “My daddy didn't talk about it. He just couldn't.”
The device, which was invented in 1937, was patented in 1941. In 1992 ASME designated the Peerless Odorizer a national historic mechanical engineering landmark. I think the first one ran 25 years without any repair having to be done to it. I don't think we get that kind of quality anymore, but we try to.
We talk about safety and how it fits in with the schools and everything that is part of nature. In our tours for students, we stress the role that the explosion played in history. We present each student with what's called a Sniffasaurus. It’s a card you can scratch with your fingernail and the gas odor comes off the card. It really makes an impression on third, fourth, and fifth graders when they see this and when they are able to participate in something that is a landmark of history.
On the back of the Sniffasaurus card it has the dos and don'ts of natural gas safety. You would be surprised how many times you will say, “If you smell something, kids, what's the first thing you do?” And we hear from them, “We get the phone and call somebody. We don't try to get a spark in the house.” And that's the message we try to get across to them.
As survivor Bill Thompson said, out of bad things, something good has to happen, and we think about how many people have been saved since 1937 because (sniff, sniff) I smell gas, because odorants are in the gas right now.
Outside the present school you will see a cenotaph. It's in an island right in the middle of the highway. A cenotaph is a Greek word for ‘empty tomb.’ On the inside of this monument, you will find engraved the names of every student, every teacher, and every visitor whose life was taken, the youngest being a four-year-old boy. Those names are engraved for all to read.
The Greek say that no one is dead, truly dead, until no one remembers them and no one speaks their name. I want to thank you for allowing me to be here today to speak to you, because you are remembering them.