In 1937 New London, Texas, in northwest Rusk County, had one of the richest rural school districts in the United States. Community residents in the East Texas oilfield were proud of the beautiful, modern, steel-framed, E-shaped school building. On March 18 students prepared for the next day's Interscholastic Meet in Henderson. At the gymnasium, the PTA met. At 3:05 P.M. Lemmie R. Butler, instructor of manual training, turned on a sanding machine in an area which, unknown to him, was filled with a mixture of gas and air. The switch ignited the mixture and carried the flame into a nearly closed space beneath the building, 253 feet long and fifty-six feet wide. Immediately the building seemed to lift in the air and then smashed to the ground. Walls collapsed. The roof fell in and buried its victims in a mass of brick, steel, and concrete debris. The explosion was heard four miles away, and it hurled a two-ton concrete slab 200 feet away, where it crushed a car.
Fifteen minutes later, the news of the explosion had been relayed over telephone and Western Union lines. Frantic parents at the PTA meeting rushed to the school building. Community residents and roughnecks from the East Texas oilfield came with heavy-duty equipment. Within an hour Governor James Allred had sent the Texas Rangers and highway patrol to aid the victims. Doctors and medical supplies came from Baylor Hospital and Scottish Rite Hospital for Crippled Children in Dallas and from Nacogdoches, Wichita Falls, and the United States Army Air Corps at Barksdale Field in Shreveport, Louisiana. They were assisted by deputy sheriffs from Overton, Henderson, and Kilgore, by the Boy Scouts, the American Legion, the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and volunteers from the Humble Oil Company, Gulf Pipe Line, Sinclair, and the International-Great Northern Railroad.
Workers began digging through the rubble looking for victims. Floodlights were set up, and the rescue operation continued through the night as rain fell. Within seventeen hours all victims and debris had been taken from the site. Mother Francis Hospital in Tyler canceled its elaborate dedication ceremonies to take care of the injured. The Texas Funeral Directors sent twenty-five embalmers. Of the 500 students and forty teachers in the building, approximately 298 died. Some rescuers, students, and teachers needed psychiatric attention, and only about 130 students escaped serious injury. Those who died received individual caskets, individual graves, and religious services.
Three days after the explosion, inquiries were held to determine the cause of the disaster. The state of Texas and the Bureau of Mines sent experts to the scene. Hearings were conducted. From these investigations, researchers learned that until January 18, 1937, the school had received its gas from the United Gas Company. To save gas expenses of $300 a month, plumbers, with the knowledge and approval of the school board and superintendent, had tapped a residue gas line of Parade Gasoline Company. School officials saw nothing wrong because the use of "green" or "wet" gas was a frequent money-saving practice for homes, schools, and churches in the oilfield. The researchers concluded that gas had escaped from a faulty connection and accumulated beneath the building. Green gas has no smell; no one knew it was accumulating beneath the building, although on other days there had been evidence of leaking gas. No school officials were found liable.
These findings brought a hostile reaction from many parents. More than seventy lawsuits were filed for damages. Few cases came to trial, however, and those that did were dismissed by district judge Robert T. Brown for lack of evidence. Public pressure forced the resignation of the superintendent, who had lost a son in the explosion. The most important result of the disaster was the passage of a state odorization law, which required that distinctive malodorants be mixed in all gas for commercial and industrial use so that people could be warned by the smell. The thirty surviving seniors at New London finished their year in temporary buildings while a new school was built on nearly the same site. The builders focused primarily on safety and secondarily on their desire to inspire students to a higher education. A cenotaph of Texas pink granite, designed by Donald S. Nelson, architect, and Herring Coe, sculptor, was erected in front of the new school in 1939.