New London, TX School Explosion, Mar 1937
BLAST INQUIRY STARTS
BODIES OF 388 CHILDREN AND TEACHERS RECOVERED
Accumulation of Gas Blamed; 450 Estimated Death Toll at School
NEW LONDON, March 19 (AP) - Military authorities viewed wreckage of the London Consolidated School in driving rain today and immediately called a Court of Inquiry to fix the cause of an explosion that buried an estimated 450 children beneath tons of rock and steel late yesterday. Today, 388 bodies had been recovered.
Major GASTON HOWARD, assistant adjutant general, appalled at the scene of the nation's worst modern child tragedy, said a board of six would start functioning late today. Survivors and eye witnesses would be questioned in an open hearing, he said.
First definite indication that accumulated gas caused the blast that lifted hundreds of school children, heavy girders and bricks hundreds of feet in the air, came from Major HOWARD when he said DR. E. P. SHOCH, noted chemistry professor at the University of Texas, had been summoned as a witness. Major HOWARD said DR. SHOCH, expert on gas explosions who had testified in similar hearings throughout the nation, would be hurried here by State Highway Police from Austin.
Appointed to the board were COL. H. H. CARMICHAEL, director of the Texas Public Safety Department; Capt. ED CLARK, Col. C. E. PARKER, National Guard; Capt. C. P. KERR, National Guard and Capt. Z. E. COMBES who will preside as Judge Advocate.
Rain drove down on the disaster scene, slowing workers who had reached the basement of one wing, piled high in the middle of the 150-yard long structure were bricks, steel beams and roofing.
Workmen admitted it was under that pile up that they expected to find many more bodies.
Nestled in a cluster of oil derricks in the heart of the world's most prolific flush oil field, the school, wealthiest rural institution in the nation, was a shambles.
Dance halls, roller skating rinks, churches, hotels, hospitals and morgues in six nearby towns were filled with dead.
Workers boring into an almost impregnable mass of ruins wearied. Calls for replacements echoed over the vicinity from a powerful public address system. Some fell exhausted, others stripped to the waist stumbled out of dust clouds for fresh air and plunged back for more digging.
Born of oil, many authorities theorized the $150,000 structure show spot of the derricked oil belt, met destruction in the same manner.
Superintendent W. C. SHAW who stood outside on the grounds and barely escaped death from debris that hurtled 300 yards in all directions said it was "quite possible" that unburned gas from the nearby field had accumulated in basement crannies and hollow tile and finally gave way to spontaneous combustion.
The odor of gas had been strong for weeks, he commented, and several survivors of the tragedy said gas fumes had bothered them recently.
Bricks, steel and children's bodies shot skyward in the sudden explosion. All landed in a twisted heap.
Today acetylene torches cut into the pretzel-like steel girders in all parts of the wrecked building - part of an elaborate $1,000,000 school plant - as workers reached a basement floor believed to be hiding more bodies.
Superintendent W. C. SHAW, who stood in the school yard when the explosion occurred, theorized that gas from the nearby oil field might have accumulated in the basement and in the hollow tile of the building. He remarked that the odor of gas in the field had been strong for weeks.
Two hundred yards from the high school building which was demolished were scores of the doomed children's parents attending a meeting of the Parent-Teachers Association. They rushed screaming from their meeting into the blinding dust fog, debris raining down around them.
Shouts from the women running toward the building were drowned in the rumbling rush of brick and steel work. Oil field laborers who heard and saw the disaster were next on the scene and started clawing at the bricks and tile before the dust cloud had settled.
Hands Rubbed Raw.
Long lines of workers formed and hands rubbed raw and bled as jagged framework and torn bricks were passed along hand-to-hand. Trucks hastily recruited from the oil field arrived within a few minutes and cranes lifted tons of wreckage from the broken bodies of the dead and dying children.
Darkness fell and floodlights hastily installed cast a ghastly white pall over the scene.
National Guardsmen patrolled the area placed under martial law by Governor JAMES V. ALLRED. State highway patrolmen, liquor agents, local officers, rangers, and members of the American Legion threw a police cordon against crowds.
Lieut. Col. C. E. PARKER, commanding the National Guard units, disproved a report that the building possibly was dynamited. He said 14 sticks of explosives found in an undamaged closed had been placed in storage there during blasting on a football field.
Pupils in Building at Time of Blast Relate Their Experience
OVERTON, March 19 (U.P.) -- How it feels to be in a model fireproof school building, considered the safest place in the world, when it is demolished by an explosion of gas is described in the following dispatch written for the United Press by children who survived:
By JAMES WARD
An Eleventh Grade Student
I was reading in the study hall when I heard an awful noise. I guess I was knocked out. When I came to, I was lying against the wall with a bunch of other kids.
They were just getting up, too, and a couple of them were moaning. I couldn't get up until they did because they were sort of lying across me.
One of them got up and jumped from the window about three feet to the ground. The other one couldn't get up so I pushed her from the window and jumped out myself. I don't remember who she was.
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