Nearly 300 students in Texas are killed by an explosion of natural gas at their school on this day in 1937.
The Consolidated School of New London, Texas, sat in the middle of a large oil and natural gas field. The area was dominated by 10,000 oil derricks, 11 of which stood right on school grounds. The school was newly built in the 1930s for close to $1 million and, from its inception, bought natural gas from Union Gas to supply its energy needs. The school’s natural gas bill averaged about $300 a month. Eventually, officials at Consolidated School were persuaded to save money by tapping into the wet-gas lines operated by Parade Oil Company that ran near the school. Wet gas is a type of waste gas that is less stable and has more impurities than typical natural gas. At the time, it was not completely uncommon for consumers living near oil fields to use this gas.
At 3:05 p.m. on March 18, a Thursday afternoon, the 694 students and 40 teachers in attendance at the Consolidated School were looking forward to the final bell, which was to ring in 10 minutes. Instead, a huge and powerful explosion, which literally blew the roof off of the building, leveled the school. The blast, which came without warning because natural gas had no smell back then, was felt by people 40 miles away and killed most victims instantly. People rushed to the scene to pull out survivors; hundreds of injured students were hauled from the rubble. Miraculously, some students walked away unharmed; 10 of these were found under a large bookcase that shielded them from the falling building. First-aid stations were established in the nearby towns of Tyler, Overton, Kilgore and Henderson to tend to the wounded. Reportedly, a blackboard at the destroyed school was found that read, Oil and natural gas are East Texas’ greatest natural gifts. Without them, this school would not be here and none of us would be learning our lessons.
The exact cause of the spark that ignited the gas was never found, although it is now known that the gas could have been ignited by static electricity. As a result of this incident, wet gas was required to be burned at the site rather than piped away. More importantly, a new state law mandating the usage of malodorants in natural gas for commercial and industrial use was put into place after the incident. This would provide a warning to anyone in the area of a natural gas leak, and hopefully prevent large casualties such as the ones felt in this explosion.