Oil town remembers lost generation

By WILLIAM H. INMAN  |  March 16, 1987
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NEW LONDON, Texas -- A half century ago this week, a time when the redbuds bloom in Texas, thunder rolled from the belly of a brick schoolhouse and snatched away a generation of children.

'It's something that scars your mind -- the screams, the cries - like some horrible disease you just can't shake,' says Molly Ward, then a 4th grader who watched from a bus window as New London's school shook with a deafening bellow and settled into a heap of brick and dust and broken bodies.

At precisely 3:15 p.m., March 18, 1937, time stopped for the town of New London, population 1,200, then at the center of the world's greatest oil boom. A natural gas explosion in the basement of the school set off a blast heard as far away as the roughneck tent-camps of Kilgore and Tyler, 35 miles to the north.

The death toll was never fixed. A hulking cenotaph at the center of the town records 294 victims, but survivors say they can count more, nearly 300.

What is known is that it was America's worst civilian disaster. It remained so until a firestorm swept the docks of Texas City 10 years later.

Yet this small-town disaster had a special terror. It was selective death, the last and cruelest plague of Moses. More than 270 of its victims were children. It exterminated a generation.

'I have thought many times how my life was made different,' says Bill Thompson, a retired factory worker living across from the rebuilt school. 'I thought about little things, like when I made the varsity (football team) when I shouldn't have.

'You see, my competition was all dead.'

Despite the distance in time, memory remains keen.

For Ward, images flash alive at the sound of spring thunder. And Thompson carries ghosts and guilt into his sleep each night. It seems he swapped desks with a fifth-grade classmate so he could flirt with Billie Sue Hall. Somebody died where he should have been, and he has never forgiven himself. 'I've got pain even today.'

Jack Strickland, who nearly died, got religion and became a preacher. Ralph Carr got out of the oil business, never forgetting how his daughter stared back at him in her dead repose. Helen Sillick still thinks about it as a dream.

'I remember being thrown up into the air like a toy, looking around me and seeing the parts of buildings floating in the air with me. I'm up above the school, I think to myself. I can see people walking around, screaming. I keep turning and spinning. Then darkness.'

Witnesses never forgot.

'It still stands out in my memory, exceedingly vivid,' Walter Cronkite, then a 20-year-old reporter for United Press in Dallas, later told a reporter. 'It was the biggest civilian tragedy I covered in my life. Wars, of course, are another thing. But nothing else equaled it.

'We got down there, and it was one of the most ghastly scenes I ever saw. Those oil field workers whose children were buried there were sobbing as they tore away at the rubble with their bloodied hands, uncovering body after body.'

White House correspondent Sarah McClendon was a $10-a-week reporter at the Tyler Courier-Times and one of the first newspeople on the scene.

'I'll never forget seeing the bones of a little girl,' she says, 'picked as clean as a whistle, clean as if they had been boiled. She was probably never identified. The blast literally tore the flesh from her bones.'

World leaders wired their condolences. One came from Adolf Hitler: 'I want to assure your excellency of the German people's sincere sympathy,' he cabled Franklin Roosevelt.

To save money for winter heat the school had tapped into a line of raw natural gas coming up from the oilfields. The gas, which was odorless, had poured into a crawl space beneath the school complex, awaiting only a spark.

An official inquiry pinned the disaster on a sparking electrical sander; teacher Lemmie Butler had gone down to add a few finishing touches to a shop project in a basement-level class.

Two months after the disaster, the state passed a law making it illegal to pump natural gas without including a pungent odorant so that it could always be detected.

How did the gas come to seep into the underpinnings of the school? Nobody knows. Perhaps a valve was left open. Perhaps there was a pipeline fracture. There were hints of sabotage. But nothing was proven.

The mystery resurfaced 24 years after the blowup. An Oklahoma City ex-convict and mental patient told police he caused the explosion. William Estel Benson had been a student at the time and said he unscrewed gas pipes beneath the school, hoping to run up the school's gas bill. He was angry, he said. The principal of the school had chewed him out for smoking.

He had details, including specifications on the pipe not released to the public. Benson had helped his stepfather install the school's plumbing system. 'My stepfather owned a pipeyard, and I worked with him,' said Benson, a convicted burglar. 'I knew plenty about oil and gas pipes. But I didn't really intend to kill anybody.'

Benson's sister died in the explosion, and Benson said he spent many of his post-school years in mental institutions trying to deal with the grief.

His confession sparked a firestorm. But on the same day authorities talked about prosecuting Benson, his lawyers issued a denial. 'I just wanted to play the big shot,' Benson said later. The case for sabotage was officially closed.

To grasp the enormity of the tragedy is to understand how good life was in those parts. Texas was experiencing an oil boom unprecedented in the world's history. The lid on the East Texas oil fields had been blown sky high by a 70-year-old wildcatter named 'Dad' Joiner; the field developer, Arkansas saloon owner H.L. Hunt, was already well on his way to his first billion dollars.

New London was flush with wealth and expectations. Located in the heart of the piney woods country of Texas, the town was smack dab over the deepest of the underground reserves; drilling camps ringed the area. Its rural school district was the richest in the world.

The main school building, an imposing stretch of dun-colored brick and pinkish tile, three wings connected by a central corrhdor, encompassed 25 classrooms, an auditorium and offices. It housed 600 students from grades 5 through 11.

Carr, a roughneck at the time, was in the Tidewater offices across from the school entrance when he heard the big sound. The noise was not sharp like a dynamite explosion, but something closer to the 'whump' of a giant vault door closing.

He spun around to see the schoolhouse rise in the air. 'I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. It seemed to float up in one piece, then crash down.

'I went running inside. My (daughter) Chloe Ann was inside. The dust was so thick you could cut it with a knife, but I found Chloe Ann. Everybody was sitting in their seats. I saw my girl slumped in her seat. She looked so sweet, so normal.'

But Chloe Ann, 16, was dead. She bore no visible injury. Her eyes were open. Doctors call it concussion death. 'Something deep inside (her brain) probably snapped,' says Erwin Thal, a trauma surgeon in Dallas. 'It was the jolt.'

At the other side of the complex, 12-year-old Thompson had just swapped seats when the windows began to creak and dust sifted in eddies from the plaster overhead. He remembers hearing nothing, but his parents, 6 miles away, heard a crashing sound at that instant. They thought another oil-field boiler had blown.

'Everything went up and around and around,' says Thompson. He blacked out and woke up an hour later, buried beneath tangled steel and plaster. 'I could move one hand and one arm. But everything else was mashed in. I felt hot blood on my face. I kept trying to wake up, pinching myself.'

It took hours for rescue workers to dig him out. Despite his injuries, he stumbled around the campus, trying to help. 'I was covered with blood and thick gray dust. I must have looked like a ghost. I remember seeing the rows and rows of bodies lying in the sun, and hearing the parents shrieking, 'Have you seen my child? Have you seen my child?' The searchers were pretty frantic.'

Joe Nelson was a searcher. It took days to find his mother, an oration teacher who was among the first to die. 'My brothers and I looked everywhere. The bodies were stacked up in churches, in stores, in offices, in homes. The whole town was a morgue. I finally found mom. Her face was mangled, but we recognized a (college) ring on her finger.'

Little Molly Ward never got over the loss of Genevieve Jolly, her best friend. Molly visited Jenny's home often in the days afterward. Her friend's body was laid out on a table in her mother's home.

'I used to go to her home with my mother. I saw Jenny a lot. Half of her face still looked like she was Jenny. The other half was swollen and bruised. I was young and didn't understand how this could happen. I still don't.'

The explosion was a big disaster in a small place, and there was an odd ripple effect. A few days after the blast, the school reopened with about a third of its former students; classes were held in the indoor gymnasium, which survived largely intact. The 16 survivors of Thompson's class of 26 huddled behind wooden partitions and built fires to keep warm when a sudden snowstorm thrust down from Canada.

Many classes, including Chloe Ann Carr's, were wiped out, as were many families. The Walker family, for instance, lost all five sons and daughters. Businesses went under in those late Depression years, but nobody can say for sure if lost heirs were the reason.

There were no more school dances for some time. Yet the churches were full, especially the old Baptist church and the clapboard Church of Christ, packed every Sunday and Wednesday night. And for weeks visitors - the curious and the kin -- thronged tiny Pleasant Hill cemetery, six miles away, where 200 or so small graves were cut into the black loam.

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