Lessons from a Tragedy Almost Forgotten

By Debbie Hersman

Few people today know about the tragedy that struck a small Texas town  75 years ago. On March 18, 1937, a school in New London, an East Texas oil field community, was blown apart by a natural gas explosion. Nearly 300 people perished, almost all of them children. That explosion destroyed an entire generation in what remains the worst school disaster in U.S. history.

In the days leading up to the accident, students had complained of headaches. Yet, since natural gas is odorless, nobody knew about the growing danger from a leak in a gas line deep inside the school sub-basement.

One moment students were at their lessons. The next moment, when a shop teacher switched on an electrical sander, the building exploded. Witnesses described the walls of the school bulging outward and the roof being lifted off the top of the school before crashing down upon it.

This horrible accident forever changed the lives of everyone in New London and around the country. As is often the case, tragedy can lead to improvement. Lessons learned can prevent future accidents. Out of the New London school explosion came the move to add an odor to natural gas during the manufacturing process so people could detect its presence. This is most important in enclosed spaces, such as houses, apartments, businesses, and, most certainly, schools. This simple safety innovation has prevented countless accidents over the last 75 years.

Despite the many lessons learned and safety improvements implemented since the New London school explosion, we’re still investigating accidents – like the 2010 pipeline rupture explosion in San Bruno, Calif., that killed eight residents in a San Francisco suburb – to identify actions that can improve safety for everyone.

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