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London, West Rusk community remembers school explosion on 80th anniversary

By Meredith Shamburger
March 18, 2017 at 11:36 p.m.

Joseph Hannabass of Purvis, Mississippi, finds the name of his cousin, Jimmie Crumbley, on the memorial cenotaph after a memorial service and reunion Saturday in New London. Crumbley was in the sixth grade when she was killed in the 1937 explosion that destroyed London High School.  (Les Hassell/News-Journal Photo)

On the 80th anniversary of the London High School explosion, survivor Mary Lou Taylor returned to her alma mater for an all-school reunion — and to remember her teachers and classmates who died that day in 1937.

Three other survivors were present Saturday to mark the occasion, and they were joined by hundreds of alumni who have graduated from London High School and West Rusk High School in the decades since the explosion.

"It brings back memories," Taylor said of the memorial events. "It's good to see the people. We have to keep going. We can't ever give up."

Taylor, then 12 years old, was sitting at her desk in math class when the explosion that killed nearly 300 students ripped through the school March 18, 1937. It was 3:17 p.m., and school was about to be dismissed for the afternoon. Taylor remembers it as a "normal spring day."

"The roof came in and laid down just like a big sheet," she said. "I ducked down between the desks and the aisle and crawled out to where the windows were. That's where I jumped from there to the ground. There were broken pieces of concrete all over."

No one in Taylor's class was seriously hurt, but she remembers that her homeroom teacher was killed. So were many of her classmates.

"I sprained my ankle when I jumped, and that's the only casualty I had," she said. "I was blessed to survive it when others didn't."

On Saturday, the Day of Remembrance and All-School Reunion took place throughout the day at West Rusk High School, in the school building erected to replace the one destroyed that day.

Almost three decades after the explosion, the London Independent School District merged with the Gaston Independent School District to form West Rusk ISD. Saturday's all-school reunion was the first time London ex-students and alumni from the new West Rusk High School hosted their reunions together.

Those who returned sang school songs from both London and West Rusk — although the London ex-students at first didn't know the melody to the West Rusk song. A loud group of West Rusk alumni celebrating their 50th reunion seemed pleased to lead everyone through it. Alumni Association President Miles Toler promised they'd learn it by the next reunion, scheduled for two years from now.

The group collected money for the annual high school scholarship presentations and honored the 21 Boy Scouts who lost their lives in the explosion. Two plaques were made remembering the London Boy Scout Troop 217: one for the East Texas Area Council and another for the London Museum. Alumni also remembered the students who died in the explosion.

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said in a speech to the people gathered Saturday that looking back at the explosion's aftermath, he was reminded of how Jesus spoke about there being no greater love than he who lays down his life for another.

"As we step back and think about it, it's really hard to take in even today, something of this magnitude, but the response is really what we can be thankful for, what we can celebrate. The way people showed love, the way they came together, they helped when people needed help," he said.

While Hughes mourned the loss of so many lives in the explosion, he said laws passed afterward that added malodorants (ill-smelling substances) to natural gas have saved countless others.

"There's no telling how many lives have been saved in the last 80 years all around the world because of that one thing," he said.

The day of the explosion and a few days before it, students at the school had complained their eyes were burning, but no one knew why. Gas had been leaking into the school but went undetected — the explosion happened when an instructor plugged in a sander he had been repairing to test it.

"Suddenly, a big mess of sand and what looked like a ball of fire tumbled into the room," John Nelson, a student in the class, would later say, as quoted in an account on display at the London Museum, 10690 S. Main St., in New London.

One group of students present Saturday were not alumni but actors performing in a UIL One Act Play about the London High School explosion. They had traveled from Sands CISD in West Texas for the 80th anniversary and to see where the explosion had taken place.

Tana Howard, theater arts director, said she decided to stage the play over the summer.

"I didn't know the story, and I think a lot of us in Texas — especially in West Texas — have not heard this story, and I think the story needed to be told more than anything," she said.

Howard was able to cut the play down for the UIL One Act competition, and as the production began, she said many of the people involved in the show learned they had family connections to the tragedy.

"Once we heard about the 80th reunion, several of the kids were adamant on making it down here for it," she said.

The group traveled down from Ackerly on Friday, spending Saturday at the high school and at the London museum.

"It's very moving," she said. "It's one of those things you go through the motions on stage and you're re-creating it and you're re-creating it. You want to get it as close and authentic as possible, so even going through the museum a while ago, there were several things that I'm like we're going to have to fix this, we're going to have to change this costuming wise just to make it more authentic."

Related Story: Archived voices: Survivors of New London explosion recall loss, learning to live.

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