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New London school explosion still echoes across East Texas

From Staff Reports
March 18, 2017 at 7:32 a.m.
Updated March 18, 2017 at 7:32 a.m.


Eighty years ago today, one of the deadliest school disasters in U.S. history occurred.

Its shock waves still reverberate across the region.

So, as they have each year for decades, East Texans will gather today in New London to remember the lives lost in the tragedy of March 18, 1937, when an explosion at London High School claimed the lives of an estimated 294 children, teachers and visitors.

The solemn ceremonies will remember those lost, the families forever changed and will include some of the dwindling number of eyewitnesses to the horrific aftermath of the blast that reduced much of the school to rubble.

That aftermath — the confusion, the shock and the grief — were brought to thousands of readers in vivid detail just hours later in the pages of the Longview Morning Journal, one of the forerunners to today’s News-Journal.

An image of the front page of the March 19, 1937, Morning Journal is reproduced above as part of our commemoration of this anniversary.

Over the years, the News-Journal has retold the story of the school explosion from many angles, but today — on the anniversary — we decided it most fitting to share the story as it was first told 80 years ago.

It is important to understand history so that we, as a society, have a better understanding of our present, and the London High School explosion spurred life-saving measures that affect society today. Among those measures was legislation requiring a malodorant be put in all natural gas.

But it also is important to pay tribute to history so that we, as a community in East Texas, can help keep alive the memory of all of those who were lost 80 years ago.

On that March day, just after 3 p.m., children were performing dances for parents and visitors, student athletes were practicing outdoors, and an instructor was plugging in a sander to test it after making repairs. A gas line had been leaking, unbeknownst to anyone because there was no odor in the natural gas, and when the machine was run, it apparently caused a spark that ignited the explosion.

No one in the News-Journal’s newsroom today was here in 1937, but we can offer a glimpse into what likely happened to produce the page seen above.

In 1937, this company offered two main daily publications. The Longview Morning Journal would be on people’s doorsteps each morning, while the Longview Daily News would be waiting for folks when they got home in the afternoon.

At 3:30 p.m. in 1937, the newsroom would have been nearing the deadline for the morning edition. In those days, news photos were shot on film, developed, then converted to etchings for printing. News stories were typeset in molten lead one line at a time and assembled by hand as part of a lengthy process to get a page ready for printing. The multi-step process, which might take hours, was much different from what happens in the modern newsroom, where digital desktop publishing enables news staff to assemble some pages in minutes.

We imagine the words “stop the presses” might have been uttered that March 18 when word reached Longview about the explosion in Rusk County.

After the 3:30 p.m. explosion, it could have been close to 5 p.m. before the Longview newsroom received word something had happened in New London. It could have been 6 p.m. or later by the time reporters and photographers got to the scene to begin taking photographs and compiling information on the tragedy. It probably was being printed just a couple of hours later.

Early reports indicated that 300 to 400 students, teachers and visitors had perished in the explosion. By the afternoon of March 19, 1937, the Longview Daily News was reporting that about 275 bodies had been identified.

There still is not an exact death toll, but 294 has been the agreed-upon number for several years.

The stories from the Morning Journal tell of the oilfield workers and others who immediately came to the scene to begin rescue efforts. They detail the hospitals that were filled to capacity treating the hundreds who were injured and morgues that were filled to capacity with bodies of the dead.

Stories in the afternoon edition indicated that other area schools had checked to make sure there were no gas leaks in their buildings in the wake of the disaster. By then, the newspaper reported, the Texas House of Representatives had adopted a resolution for a legislative investigation into the cause of the explosion; meanwhile, London ISD Superintendent William Shaw indicated he thought poor gas pipe capping might have led to the blast.

It was clear that everyone from state legislators to local officials was concerned with finding the cause and ensuring such a tragedy didn’t befall another Texas school.

A detailed history of what happened that day and the life-saving measures it spurred are documented at the London Museum, where volunteers continue to work to remind the community of its past.

Today, the News-Journal is proud to present the front pages of the March 19, 1937, Longview Morning Journal and the Longview Daily News as we join with our East Texas community in remembering the toll and impact of that explosion 80 years ago today.

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