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The Texas School Disaster


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New London, Texas, one of the world's richest oil regions, was the scene early in 1937 of what was probably the most heart-breaking disaster of modern times, a calamity which not only awed and horrified the United States but stirred the grief and pity of people in every civilised land. It was all the more dreadful since almost all the victims were little children from nine years of age upwards. Over 400 boys and girls perished in an explosion which reduced their handsome, modern school to a tangled, smoking mass of steel and brick and concrete.

The prosperous little township of New London, with its few stores and houses, stands amid a forest of oil-derricks. There are actually eight of these skeleton-like structures within the school grounds, and from the roof of the building could be seen - before the disaster - some 10,000 of them, rising from 50 to 100 feet in the air, and marshalled in big battalions across the fiat countryside.

The London Consolidated School, as it was called, was said to have been the largest rural educational establishment in the world. It catered for something like 1,500 children drawn from various towns and villages in the East Texas oilfields, including, in additon to New London, such places as Henderson, Overton, Longview, Tyler, Shiloh and Kilgore. It was a fine-looking building, in strange contrast with the ditched dirt roads and rough wooden structures, many of them little more than shacks, that serve as houses and shops in this, one of the world's richest territories, from which men win the "black gold" that others know as oil. The school, run on splendidly advanced lines, was part of 50,000 scheme. There were thirty superb classrooms and an assembly hall capable of accommodating half the pupils. Texas was justly proud of this amenity for its youth.

On Thursday, March 18, 1937, there were 700 children in the building. With them were forty teachers. When the catastrophe occurred the day's lessons were nearly done. In fact, in another ten minutes the scholars would have begun to stream out to freedom and safety. But it was not to be. Death was determined that day to feed the rich earth of the oilfields with the richer dust of the children who were reared upon its prosperity.

A sudden muffled sound, a low rumbling, a queer sense of oppression, a dull explosion, and the proud building came crashing down around the heads of the frightened and bewildered children. Solid chunks of brick and concrete smashed and splintered the classrooms. Great girders fell and pinned the boys and girls to desks and floors. Some had been flung roof-high by the force of the detonation; others were thrown completely out of the building, catapulted for scores of yards, to lie crumpled, broken and still. When the noise of the falling walls and roof subsided there arose a heart-chilling symphony of screams and cries - the sound of hundreds of children in agony and despair. Flame spurted amid the wreckage, amid which so many precious lives were ending and ended. There were little victims who had lost arms and legs and even heads. To many death had come swiftly and mercifully. But no words can picture the plight of those trapped in the debris, crushed and broken, in ghastly contortion.

The superintendent of the school, Mr. W. C. Shaw, whose own son was in the building at the time, was standing only fifty yards away from the scene of the disaster, saw his beloved school crash in ruins, and was struck by flying wreckage. "It's unbelievable," he said immediately afterwards. "There wasn't much noise. The roof just lifted off, then the walls fell out and the roof fell in. It was all over in half a minute." This sixty-one-year-old headmaster was stunned and heart-broken. The cries of the children still imprisoned alive in the building drove him almost to distraction. Only a few minutes before he had himself been in the building, and had found everything in perfect order.

Another eyewitness from outside the school was Martha Harris, aged eighteen, herself a student, who, fortunately for her, was in the "home economy" building about sixty yards away. With stark simplicity she gave a vivid impression of the calamity. "The earth shook and brick and glass came showering down. I looked out of a window and saw my friends dying like flies. Kids were blown out through the top of the roof. Some of them hung up there, and others fell off to the ground. I saw girls in my class jump out of windows as though they were deserting a sinking ship. I saw a girl fall out of the top down through a big window which opened to the outside. The glass cut her leg off just like a knife would. The bodies of the kids were stacked up just like you would stack up cakes. I'll never forget how I saw my playmates' bodies torn. Some of them were blown to bits."

Many of the elder children dug themselves out of the ruins, appearing suddenly, as if from nowhere, blood-stained and with tattered garments, frightened, trembling, some with broken limbs and gaping wounds, staggering in a daze into the glare of the sunshine. Those who had jumped from windows lay where they had fallen, some never to rise to their feet, again.

But left behind, hidden beneath the debris, were hundreds of their companions. Here and there an arm or leg projected, sometimes a little head would rise, and as the smoke and dust cleared a little some part of the struggle for life could be seen in all its dreadful detail. Above the ruins rose a skeleton of twisted girders, like a shelled cathedral in a Flanders battlefield.

There were incredible escapes, just as some who were so near to safety were killed by the irony of fate. In an open-air class a hundred yards from the school building a boy was killed by an errant brick flying through the air. The master in charge of the class had occasion to enter the building in search of equipment a few moments before the explosion and was among those who perished. "I was hit on the back of the head by something, and then jumped out of the second-floor window," said one boy calmly. A little girl who was found safe and unhurt beneath a desk saw her playmates blown towards the roof and her teacher buried alive. Another little girl, about 9 or 10 years of age, was discovered beneath four feet of debris, sobbing quietly, but quite uninjured. One small class of boys, with their teacher, were saved by a huge bookcase, which acted as a protective shield. Quite a number of children owe their lives to the fact that they were protected by pillars and girders when the roof caved in.

One of the few blessings of so cursed a disaster was the fact that the school had been constructed on fire-resisting lines. Few, if any, were actually burned to death. Crushing and suffocation took toll of the majority of lives lost that day.

Not the least tragic feature of the early stages of the catastrophe was the stampede of mothers who had been attending a meeting in the school gymnasium, fifty yards away. The rumble and crash of the falling building petrified them with fear. Wild-eyed and incoherent in their distress, they ran and stumbled towards the ruined school. As they saw the fearful havoc before them, as they heard those pitiful cries, many of them fainted and fell. Others, in a frenzy of despair, clawed at the wreckage, tearing their fingers until the blood ran, fighting with all the fury of defensive motherhood to save and protect their young. Bruised, wounded, sobbing, caked with the concrete dust that still rose and hovered, they eventually fell back defeated, leaving the task of salvation to others - to the strong men of the Texas oilfields.

And what a task, what an ordeal, what a sad yet brutal spectacle it was. All through that evening, all through that long, unforgettable night, right into the next day it went on. For hours after the explosion the cries of the entombed could be plainly heard, voices that begged and entreated and raved, and even when the last scream had faded into silence, the rescuers toiled on.

Before darkness fell the grass surround of the school was covered with dead, dying and injured. Many more lay in the gymnasium. Fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters moved among them, stealing silently, eyes wet with tears, from one huddled little form to another, peering into the dust-coloured faces, examining torn and mutilated clothing. Occasionally a searcher would scream as recognition came, would fall to the ground to clasp the dead or broken form of some little victim so dear to them. Few doctors and nurses had as yet arrived, but volunteers did what they could to mitigate the suffering of the injured and still living. The rough hands of the men from the oilfields were very tender at that hour.

As the news of the tragedy spread hospitals, schools, churches and private homes for miles around prepared to receive the victims. One of the first emergency first-aid posts was the Baptist Church at Overton. "I have never seen anything like it since I came out of the trenches in France," said the pastor. "Many of the youngsters died before we could do anything for them. Some were without an arm or a leg, but fortunately most of them were unconscious."

The Governor of the State ordered martial law in the vicinity of New London, and some 200 National Guardsmen were rushed to the scene. It was as well, for teeming thousands of sightseers began to converge on the area of the tragedy, the traffic blocking the roads and threatening to impede the progress of ambulances. In this wealthy oilfield district motor cars are far from being considered a luxury. Even the labourers, amazingly well paid since the exploitation of "black gold," opened up a new El Dorado, ride in luxury and ease. And on this evening they appeared in an endless caravan.

President Roosevelt ordered that the American Red Cross and all possible public agencies should be harnessed in a drive to render every possible assistance. Radio appeals were sent out for doctors, nurses and medical supplies. Before long they were on their way by road, by rail and by air. Small battalions of undertakers and embalmers, too, were on the move.

Darkness came, an enemy of the rescuers that had obviously to be overcome. Floodlights from the school football field poured cascades of brilliance across the ruins from which so many previous lives had still to be saved. Acetylene torches flared. A string of electric light bulbs was hoisted overhead, and pocket flashlamps stabbed and shot through the gloom. Over a thousand men worked desperately to reach more and more trapped victims. Derricks and windlasses were operated. The work seemed painfully slow - to waiting parents the time must have been interminable. It was essential, however, that the debris should be moved with the greatest caution. There were still living children buried many feet below the surface.

All night long the radio was flashing out messages that told of the grim battle against death that was being fought at New London, of the mental agony and relief of parents, of the nobility of service, of the many phases of emotion and activity that such a disaster as this brings to the surface. Please let laundry trucks by. They are not carrying laundry, but food and medical supplies. How epic in its simplicity. Unidentified boy in morgue at school, 12 years, silver ring set with blue stone, blue overalls. Heart-break in the end for some one somewhere, still hoping that the little boy with the ring still lived. We can furnish blood transfusions. Always at such a time, is the best in man, and the will to give, apparent. Men for digging graves available. Already the inevitable earth was opening for the innocents who had known so little of life.

At five o'clock in the morning a great thunderstorm shook the sky. Torrents of rain fell, and soon the trucks and ambulances and cars had churned the ground around the ruined school into a quagmire. Books and papers from the school, the clothes of helpers and even the garments of dead children were thrown beneath the wheels to ease their passage. Soaked to the skin, sinking ankle-deep in the mire, the volunteers toiled on. They were hungry and they had not slept, but they were determined to a man to probe the last inch of wreckage.

Lying around on the ground were tragic relics of the school and the schoolchildren that had been the day before. Here, open at a bright, glowing picture page, smudged a little, its colours running like the blood that had been spilt so near it, was a primary reader. There, splintered as it had flown through the air, a blackboard, with its message in white chalk still readable. Sad little fragments of clothing, a football boot, a pencil box... all a story without words.

Even when the last little body had been removed from the ruins the task of identification was not complete. Some of the children were mutilated, in the words of an eyewitness, "beyond imagination." In some parts of Texas children are registered by their fingerprints as well as by their names, and fingerprint experts hurried to New London to co-operate in the work of recognition. One father and mother suffered the ordeal of having to identify seven little ones, as they were brought - dead - one by one from beneath the ruins.

The aftermath in East Texas was one of intense grief. Everywhere the eyes of the people, men and women, were red-rimmed. They were beyond tears now, but even when the sun blazed through again after the storm and rain, it was as though a great black shadow ran through every town and village, as though every one of those upright oil-derricks was a gravestone. The earth that had given forth wealth and prosperity now demanded its price.

It is hard to understand or measure the real extent of this disaster. More than a quarter of the children of the district had been wiped out in a flash. There was not a home that had not lost either a child of its own or one it knew and loved.

In Overton, Henderson, Tyler, Kilgore and other towns the people moved silently in the streets, and it seemed that all visited or passed the hospitals, morgues or funeral parlours. For the 400 who had perished there was untold grief. For those little ones who still hovered between life and death there was a wrenching agony of anxiety. In the hospital passages and waiting-rooms, and at the bedsides, white-faced men and women waited hour after hour for news. Sometimes, when a message came to them from doctor or nurse, they crept away, their heads bowed. Sometimes a radiance spread across their faces that had been so grey with apprehension.

The lives of a number of little victims were saved by blood transfusion. Within four minutes of an appeal going out from the Kilgore Memorial Hospital, between thirty and forty oilfield workers had presented themselves, each more anxious than the other to make the willing sacrifice. It was said at the time that some of these generous and great-hearted fellows had themselves lost children in the calamity.

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