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New London, Texas

March 18 marks the 82nd anniversary of the 1937 New London School explosion, which was caused by an undetected natural gas leak.  The explosion destroyed the New London School and many students and teachers died.  Although there are varying numbers of this disaster reported to be killed more than 295 students and teachers, making it the deadliest school disaster in American history.

At the time the London school district was one of the richest in the US, the school alone cost $1 million in 1937.  It was built on ground that sloped leaving a large dead space beneath the structure.  The school board chose to override the original architect’s plans for a boiler and steam distribution system and opted to install 72 gas heaters throughout the building.  In early 1937 the board canceled its natural gas contract and tapped into a residue gas line in order to save money.  This step was not exactly authorized but the oil companies turned a blind eye because they deemed that natural gas of no value.  The raw gas plumbers had tapped in to varied in quality anywhere from daily to hourly, being untreated it had no color and odor, making it almost impossible to detect leaks.

The unnoticed gas leak filled the dead space below the school’s structure running the full length of the building at 253 feet in length. At 3:17 p.m., Thursday, March 18th, 1937 an electric sander was turned on, this is believed to have caused a spark and ignited the gas-air mixture.  The sheer force of this explosion was heard for miles.  Distraught family members and aid poured from outside of the area including Texas Rangers, Highway Patrol, the National Guard, Airmen from Barksdale Field, Deputy Sheriffs, and even Boy Scouts arrived in support of the rescue and recovery efforts.  After a heartbreaking 17 hours, rescuers had the entire site cleared. The US Bureau of Mines concluded the connection to the residue gas line was faulty allowing gas to leak into the school because this raw natural gas was invisible and odorless the leak was unnoticed.

Within weeks of the explosion, Texas legislature began mandating that mercaptans be added to natural gas giving leaks a strong detectable odor.  Furthermore, the Texas Engineering Practice Act was enacted and the practice spread quickly.  A lawsuit was brought against the school district and the Parade Gasoline Company, but the court ruled that neither could be held responsible.


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