It has been said that the tragedy that occurred seventy-seven years ago on Thursday, March 18, 1937 was the “day a town lost its future, the day a generation perished, the day when angels cried.” (Gone at 3:17). On that day, just minutes before school was to be dismissed for a much-anticipated three-day weekend, Lemmie R. Butler, a manual arts teacher, turned on a sanding machine and a spark escaped into the air, which unbeknownst to anyone was also mixed with gas.
The school had been built three years earlier and it was a show place, built not with taxes from the hard-working oil field families, but with money from the oil companies. It was possibly the wealthiest school district in the country, if not the world, at that time. Superintendent William Chesley Shaw was proud of his school, and even though the school was well-funded he still fretted over cost-savings – something that would prove fatal on that day in 1937.
Before oil was discovered, the area around London, Texas was known as Poverty Flat. Columbus Joiner was the wildcatter most responsible for drilling the wells in East Texas that an acquaintance of his, “Doc” Lloyd, was so sure was the mother-of-all oil fields. It turns out they were right. When the oil gushed out of the ground, it was described as “the California gold rush, the Klondike, the Oklahoma land rush, and the wildest of past oil booms all rolled into one.”
Kilgore was a small village that in a few days after the strike exploded in population – at the time of the strike there were 800 people and the next week 8,000. Housing needed to be built and other towns like Joinerville, Pistol Hill and New London sprang up. Other oil fields had cut production or dried up altogether in other parts of oil country. Many families would head to New London in search of much needed income to feed their families, and their children would be educated in one of the finest schools in the country.
Grades five through eleven (no twelfth grade at that time) were housed in the high school building, while grades one through four were located in the adjacent grammar school building. Athletic and scholastic events were scheduled for March 19 and 20 in nearby Henderson and it was customary for school to be dismissed early. However, that day Superintendent Shaw decided to keep students until the regular dismissal time of 3:30 p.m.
Little did Lemmie Butler know that turning on a sander in the manual arts training room at around 3:17 p.m. would alter the course of history. Here are excerpts from the book Gone at 3:17 which describe the blast:
A violent heat, the concussive single beat of a monstrous heart, conjured chaos from oxygen. The shop became a blast furnace, white hot. Scorched and twisted inside a burning shock wave, Lemmie Butler died first….Flames raced back through the four-foot door into the crawl-space. The atmosphere fed madly on itself in a frenzy of deflagration. Every molecule of 62,500 cubic feet of air screamed and rent itself away from every other.
A concrete basement wall, 250 feet long, cracked from the ground and tilted on its heels. Soil below and sturdy foundations around would yield no more, caging the relentless pressure, leaving one way out. The dragon spread its wings.
At its base the school trembled. The motion intensified to a menacing rumble until, mere seconds later, the entire structure shuddered violently. The explosion burst skyward with the force of seventy pounds of trinitrotoluene (TNT) detonated beneath each square foot of basement ceiling.
In the English class above the shop, teacher Lizzie Ellen Thompson felt the tremor sweep through the building as the floor, walls and ceiling rattled and shook.
“Jesus help us,” she said.
Some were knocked unconscious, while many others were crushed and died instantly. The carnage was unbelievably horrifying: a pair of scissors stabbed into a wall after being projected by the blast, timbers snapped in two like toothpicks, girders twisted and where they fell people between them were sliced in two.
The blast wave consisted of fine sand, cement and glass – “[I]t stripped flesh from bones, leaving some as bare and bleached as if they had been drying in the sun for weeks… [T]wisted forms dropped onto the lawn, the road, and the giant pile of rubble. A bread truck passing on the road in front of the school, about seventy yards from the building, screeched to a halt as the driver tried to avoid hitting the small boy who had fallen from the sky” (Gone at 3:17). One woman driving nearby saw the explosion in the distance and described what seemed like tiny dots shooting from the rubble as “ants pouring from an anthill kicked by somebody’s boot heel.”
Some mothers were there for the PTA meeting and the school buses were waiting in front to begin loading students before the blast occurred. Children who were not harmed were quickly loaded on the buses and taken home. One child had actually survived the blast, but while jumping from the second floor, an artery in her leg was sliced by a jagged piece of glass on a first floor window.
Many victims were mutilated beyond recognition – some were only recognizable from the coat, shirt, dress or shoes they were wearing. When the oil field workers realized what had happened, many rushed to the school, many looking for their own children. Sometimes rescuers only found the shoes which had been blown off the feet of the victims. One rescuer fainted at the sight of a mangled child’s body dangling from a tree stripped of its branches, save for one. One man had a heart attack and died later that evening. The men worked meticulously through the night to find both the still-living and the dead.
News of the disaster spread quickly via the wire services. Two reporters, one working for the Associated Press (AP) and one for United Press (UP), Felix R. McKnight and Walter Cronkite, would work tirelessly to get the story out to the world. Radio man Ted Hudson had a brutal introduction to his new job (it was his first day) at the nearby Henderson radio station. When he heard about the explosion he had a friend fly him over the site, then returned to Henderson and loaded his truck with transmission equipment and headed to New London. Not only would he broadcast news of the disaster, but he read notices and notes from around the world – it was later discovered that Adolph Hitler sent his condolences.
It was initially thought that many more people had perished in the explosion. Some newspapers trumpeted headlines proclaiming hundreds more deaths than actually had occurred:
Ambulances and emergency crews converged on the scene and were instantly overwhelmed. There was no hospital in New London and patients had to be transported to Tyler and Kilgore. The Mother Frances Hospital in Tyler was awaiting its opening day scheduled for March 19. Informed of the disaster, Mother Mary Regina sent help immediately and declared that the hospital would open a day early and without ceremony.
All of the stories were truly sad, the death and destruction was devastatingly crippling for the community and surrounding areas. When all the devastation had been combed through and all the bodies (or body parts, sadly) had been found, the time came for the memorial services. Many were buried in the local Pleasant Hill Cemetery, which although it had been founded eighty-six years before, had very few graves on a large piece of land. According to Gone at 3:17, “the landscape looked more like a green meadow than a graveyard.” That would change.
Morgues in the surrounding area were overwhelmed, not to mention a shortage of coffins – and there was also the arduous task of identifying the dead (or what parts could be used to identify one’s remains). Some families who were from other parts of the state or country, took their dead “home” for burial. One pastor performed over 140 funerals, one after the other. Some were buried in surrounding communities, but they all shared one thing: March 18, 1937 was their date of death. The collage of pictures below represents just one-tenth of those who died:
On the occasion of the seventy-fifth anniversary in 2012, a speech was given by the son of one of the survivors of the explosion. He described how his grandmother, Alice Holleyman, who had lost her daughter (her son was spared), was still depressed a year after the disaster. Her sister, however, challenged her to go on living for the life of her son Max, rather than being depressed over her daughter’s death. I noticed that a mother of one of the victims died later that year – I wondered if maybe she had been overcome with grief. I also couldn’t help but think that some of the young men at the school who survived would go on to serve (and perhaps die) in World War II. Some families lost more than one child – seven families lost three family members each. Superintendent Shaw lost his son Clifton Sambo.
Investigators would later discover that the gas being piped into the school was “waste gas” from the oil field. It had been in use for just a month before the explosion and it saved $250.84. Understandably, families were outraged when details of the tragedy’s cause began to be known – Superintendent Shaw was blamed for his “thriftiness” which cost them their children’s lives. Although technically no laws had been broken, Shaw resigned. The gas was undetected primarily because it was odorless. The natural gas we use today has a distinct odor – and following this tragedy a law was passed requiring that chemicals be added to give it a sort of “rotten egg” smell.
For many it would take years before they could even speak of their experiences, so great was their shock and grief. The town began holding reunions and commemorations beginning in 1977. The town seems determined to never forget the events of that fateful day. Their sentiment is expressed like this: “no one is dead, truly dead, until no one remembers them, and no one speaks their name.” When I discovered this story and found out that the anniversary fell on “Tombstone Tuesday” I wanted to share it with my readers.
I will review the book Gone at 3:17 – The Untold Story of the Worst School Disaster in America’s History on Thursday. There is an excellent web site which is dedicated to the memory of the victims and the history of that momentous day. It is full of information and pictures, so if you’re interested in learning more, click here.
Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!