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Tragic Texas Blast Kills 500; Mostly Children March 20th, 1937

on Mar 20th, 2009
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Experts Say Blast Came From Gas In Tile Walls
Court’s Probe Set for Today
Abilene Morning News March 20th, 1937 pg.1

(By the Associated Press) NEW LONDON, Tex., March 19. – (AP) – Expert opinion that the blast which snuffed out the lives of some 425 school pupils and teachers near here yesterday may have been generated in the very walls surrounding their classrooms spurred investigation of the disaster tonight as the community prepared to bury most of its next generation.

Dr. E. P. Schoch, University of Texas chemistry professor who is rated as an expert on gas explosions, said he had a “positive opinion” as to the cause of the blast. “It (the explosion) came from either the basement or the hollow tile walls which are excellent gas chambers,” he told newsmen, “I am reasonably certain in which one of these sections it occurred and have very little evidence to support an explosion in the other.”

Later he inspected the tangled wreckage from which a thousand men hauled their dead last night, and asserted he found many of the gas radiators without proper flues. Of six radiators left intact after the explosion, Dr. Schoch said he found only one with a satisfactory vent. “It’s simple,” he said, “The walls were filled with gas that had no other exit. Then there was a spark, and the walls burst. The condition of the bodies of those children bears that out. They were blown (he emphasized the word) to death – not burned to death.”

Capt. Z.E. Coombs of the national guard who accompanied the chemist on his inspection trip, said he had talked with the architect and contractors of the building and added that they reported the installation of radiators was the same throughout the structure. There were 72 radiators, each individually gas fired, in the building, 36 on each floor. Dr. Schoch said that the natural gas produced here in quantities simply burns when ignited, but when mixed with air, even in a ratio of one part of gas to 10 parts of air, causes a powerful explosion.

Dr. Schoch explained that “wet gas”, such as was used in the radiators at the school, must be mixed with air if its heating power is to be kept constant. He said he learned from school officials that prior to the disaster the institution switched from “dry” to “wet” gas. “However that is no cause for criticism,” the scientist added.

Dynamite Theory Out
All authorities abandoned a theory that dynamite might have caused the tragedy. Lieut. Col. C. E. Parker, commanding the national guard unit, said 14 sticks of dynamite found in an undamaged portion of the building had been placed there in storage during dynamiting of rocks on a football field. A few hours before Dr. Schoch was sent here by Gov. James V. Allred to conduct one of three official investigations, made his inspection, the last of an army of rescue workers left the ruins of the school building convinced it had given up its last body. Meanwhile, bereaved parents laid plans for mass and individual funeral services for their children. A group service for an undetermined number was planned at the New London Baptist church tomorrow, and there was the possibility of a mass service at Henderson. Military authorities set the opening of their formal inquiry for 9:30 a.m. tomorrow.

Destruction at New London, Texas 1937 - Texas State Library

Destruction at New London, Texas 1937 - Texas State Library

Job Finished
End of the grim task of extricating mangled bodies from the twisted wreckage was signalized by the terse comment of Col. C. E. Parker, commander of national guard forces which held this territory under martial law. “The job is finished. We estimate 425 bodies were lifted from the ruins – maybe more.”

Dripping wet from a pouring rain and the perspiration of their herculean exertions, an army of oil field workers, many of them seeking their own children or already knowing them dead – filed out of the tangled debris as the national guard called their task complete.

Three Of Family Spared In Blast
DALLAS, March 19 – (AP) – Three children in one family were saved from death or injury in the New London school blast because of three different sets of circumstances, their Dallas uncle said today. H. E. Sanders, the uncle, recited these circumstances: Vitra Juanita Sanders, 17, was taken from the London school classrooms by a shorthand examination in Henderson. Glenn Sanders, Jr., 15, was playing ball behind the school’s gymnasium when the building blew up. He planned on going into the school to take part in a program. Robert Sanders, 8, was at home ill.

Maimed Survivors
Fatalities in hospitals and in ambulances en route to emergency stations were expected to push the total number of dead past the 450 mark.  Those who lived after the eruption that scattered human beings and tons of debris are maimed and fractures are evident in almost every case. Ministers from throughout East Texas and Louisiana began notifying authorities of their readiness today and burials will be held tomorrow throughout the derricked oil sector – largest in the world – tomorrow and Sunday. No mass burials were planned.

At Austin, state capital, legislators passed resolutions in both houses calling for a legislative investigation even as Governor James V. Allred’s military court of national guardsmen assembled here to conduct a court of inquiry into the cause of the tragedy.

Inquiry Planned
Major Gaston S. Howard, assistant adjutant general stood in a deluge of rain as the last of the bodies was carried tenderly from the scene of Texas’ greatest disaster since the Galveston flood, and mapped plans for the military inquiry. He summoned Dr. Schoch to appear before the military authorities tomorrow, lending emphasis to the prevalent belief that explosion of gas from the oil that called the school and its surrounding communities into being had wiped out the school and with it the next generation of its communities.

Board Appointed
Major Howard indicated his belief that accumulated gas, gathered in the crannies and hollow tile of the building’s basement, was the basic cause of the disaster. He appointed Col. H. H. Carmichael, director of the Texas public safety department; Captain Ed Clark, Col. C. E. Parker, Captain C. P. Kerr and Captain Z. E. Coombes, all of the national guard, to the board of inquiry. Captain Coombes will preside as judge advocate at the meeting, thrown open by Governor Allred to “bona fide” newspapermen.

Major Howard disclosed Ross Maddox, general contractor for the “world’s wealthiest school,” and S. M. Roberta, electrician on construction of the building, had been asked to appear before the court. Major General Herbert J. Brees, commander of the eighth corps area at San Antonio, arrived shortly after noon but Major Howard said he was “here only to aid and assist.”

Digging Difficult
Hard, driving rain in the early morning hours made the final few hours of work of digging for bodies a difficult matter. Workers, stripped to the waist, passed bricks and debris along a hand-to-hand chain, using peach baskets. Footing was easy on the rocky surface but cables snapped frequently with beams in mid-air. Youngsters darted about in the rain, picking up school books blown hundreds of feet away and carting them away in tin buckets. Coffee in huge buckets was passed around among fatigue-sodden workers. Just before dawn Mrs. Tracy Tate, a school teacher, was lifted alive from the bottom of wreckage piled 20 feet high. Said worker K.G. McDonald, “I put my hand on her leg as I helped haul her from the debris and I felt the muscles of her leg twitch, she died as they placed her in an ambulance.”

Estimates Vary
Various estimates of the dead and maimed came from semi-official sources. Production superintendent H. S. McGarry of the Humble Oil and Refining company, estimated, after a company survey, that 450 perished.

1 Response about “Tragic Texas Blast Kills 500; Mostly Children March 20th, 1937”

  1. Jeremy Couso says:

    Wow that is a scary story!

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