During America’s Great Depression, a few areas of the country were unaffected. The oil fields in east Texas were such a place.
In fact, the city of New London was booming. In 1932 the school district, one of wealthiest in the nation, had built a new, state of the art high school of steel and concrete. The football stadium was the first in the state to have electric lights.
The school was built on sloping ground and a large air space was enclosed beneath the structure. The school board had overridden the original architect's plans for a boiler and steam distribution system, instead opting to install 72 gas heaters throughout the building.
Early in 1937, the school board canceled their natural gas contract and had plumbers install a tap into Parade Gasoline Company's residue gas line to save money. This practice—while not explicitly authorized by local oil companies—was widespread in the area. The natural gas extracted with the oil was considered a waste product and was flared off. As there was no value to the natural gas, the oil companies turned a blind eye.
Natural gas, untreated and in its natural state, is both colorless and odorless. Leaks could go undetected, or even unnoticed for quite some time. This was the case for the school. A leak had developed and filled the crawl space below the schools.
In the days leading up to March 18, several students complained of nausea and headaches, but little attention was given at the time.
March 18th was a Thursday. First through fourth grade were released early so older students could prepare for a scholastic and athletic competition in neighboring Henderson. A PTA meeting was being held in a separate building approximately 100 feet from the main building.
Shortly after 3:00 pm, Mr. Lemmie R. Butler turned on an electric sander in an area unbeknownst to him was filled with a mixture of gas and air. The switch ignited the mixture and carried the flame along the air space below the school.
The resulting explosion was heard four miles away and witnesses report that the building seemed to lift off the foundation and the walls bulged out before smashing back to the ground; throwing debris hundreds of feet and collapsing walls.
Parents at the PTA meeting rushed to the main school building. Workers in the oil field and people in the community hurried to the school. Word of the explosion was relayed over telephone and telegraph lines. The Texas Rangers and highway patrol were dispatched to help aid.
Workers began digging through the rubble looking for victims. Floodlights were set up, and the rescue operation continued through the night as rain fell. Within seventeen hours all victims and debris had been taken from the site. Mother Francis Hospital in Tyler canceled its elaborate dedication ceremonies to take care of the injured. The Texas Funeral Directors sent twenty-five embalmers. Of the 500 students and forty teachers in the building, approximately 298 died. Some rescuers, students, and teachers needed psychiatric attention, and only about 130 students escaped serious injury. Those who died received individual caskets, individual graves, and religious services.
Of the 500 students and 40 teachers in the building 294 died. Only 130 students escaped serious injury. The tragedy became known as New London’s Lost Generation. A new hospital, Mother Frances Hospital in nearby Tyler, was scheduled to open the next day, but the dedication was canceled and the hospital opened immediately.
Reporters who arrived in the city found themselves swept up in the rescue effort. Former Dallas Times Herald executive editor Felix McKnight, then a young AP reporter, recalled: "We identified ourselves and were immediately told that helpers were needed far more than reporters." Walter Cronkite also found himself in New London on one of his first assignments for UPI. Although Cronkite went on to cover World War II and the Nuremberg trials, he was quoted as saying decades later, "I did nothing in my studies nor in my life to prepare me for a story of the magnitude of that New London tragedy, nor has any story since that awful day equaled it.”
Experts from the United States Bureau of Mines concluded that the connection to the residue gas line was faulty. The connection had allowed gas to leak into the school, and since natural gas is invisible and is odorless, the leak was unnoticed. These findings brought a hostile reaction from many parents. More than seventy lawsuits were filed for damages. Few cases came to trial, however, and those that did were dismissed by district judge Robert T. Brown for lack of evidence. While no school officials were found liable, public pressure forced the resignation of the superintendent (among talk of lynching), who had lost a son in the explosion.
The most important result of the disaster was the passage of a state odorization law, which required that distinctive malodorants be mixed in all gas for commercial and industrial use so that people could be warned by the smell.
Shortly after the disaster, the Texas Legislature met in emergency session and enacted the Engineering Registration Act (now rewritten as the Texas Engineering Practice Act). Public pressure was on the government to regulate the practice of engineering due to the faulty installation of the natural gas connection The use of the title "engineer" in Texas remains legally restricted to those who have been professionally certified by the state to practice engineering.