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The Texas School Disaster page 2


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All through the night radio calls had gone out for more and more embalmers. They were actually rushed by fast cars from places many miles distant, with an escort of police with screaming sirens. Awaiting them were more bodies of little children ever seen in one area at any one time. They lay in motor cars and trucks, on stretchers, on boxes, in new coffins, and under sheets on floors. The formal morgues and funeral parlours were overcrowded. More than one body was embalmed in full view of the general public in the street.

Plans had been made for mass burials on the Saturday, but many parents preferred that their children should go alone to their last resting place, that they should lie in their own separate graves, that - in some cases - they should be interred in family burial grounds in distant states. In some cases parents found distressing difficulty in finding the whereabouts of their dead. One mother, indeed, after the sorrow and panic of a long and tiring quest, discovered that each of her two children was in a different town.

As long as memory lasts East Texas will remember the Saturday that followed the blasting of the New London School to the dust. From dawn until sunset unceasing cavalcades of grief wound their way along open streets, as most of the 400 victims went to their graves. Trucks and wagons and private motor cars supplemented the few available hearses, and existing cemeteries had been specially expanded to accommodate the dead. Nearly a hundred priests and ministers from various parts of Texas had been assembled to read the last rites. They worked in shifts, the rituals being cut down to essentials.

Most poignant of all the services were those held non-stop in the little wooden Baptist Church that is little more than a stone's throw from the ruined school. Almost all day long the pews were crowded, with an added throng in the street outside. At the early hour of nine o'clock in the morning six little white coffins were carried up the aisle. In three of them were three little sisters, Virgil aged 13, Ruthe, who was n, and Rose Ann, only 5. The choir sang, the minister spoke, and then they carried the six white coffins and lowered them into the black earth - into six little graves - in the cemetery near by. And so it went on, through the tragic day, here and elsewhere, one funeral following another. To glance in any direction, to walk up always any street, was to encounter some procession of almost unbearable sadness. Forty square miles of Texas countryside was in mourning.

What caused this ghastly calamity? A sensation was caused at the Military Board Enquiry when Mr. W. G. Shaw, the Superintendent, confessed that, as a measure of economy approved of by the School Board, the school had secured the fuel used in its radiators by tapping a pipe-line carrying waste gas belonging to an oil company, with the result that the building was nothing less than a "live bomb" ready to explode at any moment.

There is tragic irony in the fact that a workman engaged in clearing debris at the ruined school unearthed a blackboard on which was scrawled the words: "Oil and natural gas are Texas's greatest mineral blessings. Without them this school would not be here, and none of us would be here learning our lessons."

This was undoubtedly the worst school disaster ever known. So far as America is concerned, it is comparable only to the fire and stampede at Lake View School at Collinwood, Ohio, near Cleveland, in March, 1908, when 174 boys and girls perished. Because of narrow hallways and doors that opened only inwards, they were unable to escape from the school building and died, jammed together in an awful panic, amid the fire and smoke.

The people of the United States were staggered by this latest calamity at New London, and expressions of concern and sympathy came from all parts of the world. The death of little children is always lamentable, but on this occasion, and on such a scale, the hearts of all humanity were touched. President Roosevelt was in constant touch with the scene of the disaster, and a message of sympathy was sent by Mrs. Roosevelt.

It was some days before the whole of the victims of the New London explosion had been buried, and it will be some years before the sight of that little town ceases to bring pangs of sorrow to the inhabitants of the East Texas oilfields.

One small consolation is that the death of these 400 children has made it tolerably certain that precautions will be taken in the future to ensure that no such calamity as this is ever again made possible by the saving of money at the expense of placing human lives in jeopardy.

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