March 18, 2005
3:03 PM   Subscribe

"On March 18 [1937] students prepared for the next day's Inter-scholastic Meet in Henderson. At the gymnasium, the PTA met. At 3:05 P.M. Lemmie R. Butler, instructor of manual training, turned on a sanding machine in an area which, unknown to him, was filled with a mixture of gas and air. The switch ignited the mixture and carried the flame into a nearly closed space beneath the building, 253 feet long and fifty-six feet wide. Immediately the building seemed to lift in the air and then smashed to the ground. Walls collapsed. The roof fell in and buried its victims in a mass of brick, steel, and concrete debris. The explosion was heard four miles away, and it hurled a two-ton concrete slab 200 feet away, where it crushed a 1936 Chevrolet. 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. -- From the Handbook of Texas Online. (Other accounts, personal recollections, and photos .)

It was one of the worst disasters in Texas history. With Texans' love of superlatives, why is this a story no one tells? [more...]
posted by mudpuppie (35 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Additional facts:

This is the incident that led to the addition of ethyl mercaptan to propane -- its rotten egg smell makes for easy detection.

Memorial events will be held in Henderson, TX, this weekend -- complete with dinner, dance, and a talent show.
posted by mudpuppie at 3:04 PM on March 18, 2005

THAT is one hell of a story. Never heard of it before. Thanks for the links.
posted by spock at 3:15 PM on March 18, 2005

With Texans' love of superlatives, why is this a story no one tells? [more...]

google says; Results 1 - 10 of about 28,800 for 1937 New London gas explosion--. (0.22 seconds)
Wish MF search worked, as I bet it has been posted on this site.

One good thing came from the event. The Texas Legislature quickly passed a law requiring that a foul-smelling substance called methyl mercaptain be added to natural gas.
I know I've read this on the site before.

Excuse me if I misunderstood your wording, as it seems you think this is some dark secret from 68 years ago. Unless you meant this; Those who survived all have stories, some they are eager to tell, others they hold too private, too personal to be shared.
posted by thomcatspike at 3:18 PM on March 18, 2005

Last summer I went down to Texas to interview survivors and family members for a Canadian television program. You can still walk around the school grounds and locate junk and wreckage from the explosion.

For several people, it was the first time that they had ever told their stories, including one fellow who had for no particular reason swapped desks with a young girl that day. She died in the explosion and he carried a sense of guilt around for over forty years.

I also discovered that Texas gets really, really hot in July.
posted by palinode at 3:23 PM on March 18, 2005

That's so heartbreaking. Any harmful event that deals with children is difficult for me to think about. I never knew about this tragedy.
posted by laurenbove at 3:40 PM on March 18, 2005

That would be methane, not propane.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:42 PM on March 18, 2005

This site detailing American disasters was my first exposure to many events that I should have first heard of in daily life. Why isn't the truly horrific Peshtigo fire mentioned in conjunction with the Chicago fire?
posted by bunnytricks at 3:42 PM on March 18, 2005 [1 favorite]

Methane? Doesn't that occur naturally, though?
posted by bingo at 3:44 PM on March 18, 2005

Excuse me if I misunderstood your wording, as it seems you think this is some dark secret from 68 years ago. Unless you meant this; Those who survived all have stories, some they are eager to tell, others they hold too private, too personal to be shared.

From the article:

"In that time, I've wondered why, in the grand scope of the nation's history, the New London explosion has been all but forgotten. Another disaster that occurred just two months later in Lakehurst, New Jersey--the flaming crash of the Hindenburg--eclipsed the nation's memory of New London, even though fewer lives were lost.

Only now, it appears, has the world beyond New London decided to take notice. Sara Mosle, a former New York teacher and journalist, was recently signed by Knopf to do a book on the event. "My grandfather worked in the oil fields near New London," she says, "and my mother was a first-grader at nearby Arp when the explosion occurred." An aunt, she says, was in the fourth grade. "I remember them talking about it when I was growing up, and the story has stayed with me. Yet it seemed to have dropped from the history books." Mosle's book, tentatively titled Boom, will be published in 2003."
posted by advil at 3:46 PM on March 18, 2005

Methane? Doesn't that occur naturally, though?
Yes. That's why it's called "natural gas." The school was using gas from an oil company, "green gas" in the first link: Green gas has no smell. It's methane that comes out of gas stove burners, and it's mecaptan that makes it detectable.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:06 PM on March 18, 2005

Most of the survivors I met were discouraged by their parents from bringing it up. By way of explanation they said "It simply wasn't appropriate to talk about". It wasn't until the 1980s, when most of the older generation had died, that the survivors began to discuss the event.

The disaster is now exceedingly well-documented, if not nearly as famous as the Hindenberg. And as a bonus: at the Henderson Museum you can see a framed letter of condolence from Adolph Hitler.
posted by palinode at 4:07 PM on March 18, 2005 [1 favorite]

It's methane in the stove unless you have a big propane tank attached to your stove, of course. Lots of rural homes do, but pipelines usually carry methane.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:11 PM on March 18, 2005

And I always thought that methane came from poop. Didn't realize I've been cooking my meals with it.
posted by snsranch at 4:18 PM on March 18, 2005

There was a segment on this on Engineering Disasters on History Channel recently. I came in in the middle of it and spent the next few hours Google-ing and reading about it. On Preview, what palinode said.
posted by beetsuits at 4:27 PM on March 18, 2005

great post, I'd never heard of this.
posted by blacklite at 4:41 PM on March 18, 2005

Plep just posted about another children-related disaster in England. Odd timing.
posted by snsranch at 4:51 PM on March 18, 2005

Somewhat related, and one of the earliest incidents of school violence I can find: my aunt survived this incident in Texas in 1959.

She doesn't ever talk about it because, well, she doesn't want to remember the sound of rain that wasn't really rain ... it was blood.
posted by WolfDaddy at 5:20 PM on March 18, 2005

Gah. Correct link. Hopefully.
posted by WolfDaddy at 5:21 PM on March 18, 2005

Beetsuits, I saw that episode last year, or something similar (did it have the oil port fire too?). It also had an interview with the guy to whom Palinode refers. Is that your film Palinode or is he now an interview slut?
posted by dame at 5:39 PM on March 18, 2005

Most of the survivors I met were discouraged by their parents from bringing it up. By way of explanation they said "It simply wasn't appropriate to talk about".

This was the accepted way of dealing with tragedy at the time. The children that survived the Our Lady of the Angels fire were told by their new teachers (after they'd been farmed out to surrounding schools) to never talk about the fire. The OLA teachers and firemen were told the same thing, and one nun who'd survived and went to teach at another school had a frightening and memorable breakdown one day in front of her new class and was never heard from again.

Another rarely mentioned school explosion/disaster is the Bath, Michigan tragedy.
posted by Oriole Adams at 6:47 PM on March 18, 2005 [1 favorite]

I covered one of the anniversaries while working as a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. I was also surprised that the tragedy wasn't larger in the imaginations of the people, especially in Texas.

I think it hasn't been more well-known because it happened in a small East Texas town that was both a long way from big cities (Dallas was 120 miles west) and had little history (new oil town).

An accident like that today, of course, would be wall-to-wall tragiporn for the cable news channels.
posted by rcade at 6:54 PM on March 18, 2005

snsranch, Aberfan's in Wales, not England.
posted by scruss at 6:59 PM on March 18, 2005

snsranch, you can get methane from poop when it decomposes, or from decomposing vegetation, or decomposing dinosaurs. It's also known as "swamp gas". Some dairy farmers collect the 'product' given off by their manure piles to heat their barns.

I misspelled mercaptan up above.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:07 PM on March 18, 2005

Dame: Is that your film Palinode or is he now an interview slut?

That's not mine. The episode featuring the New London Explosion is still being processed through the mill of reenactments, edit decks and an atmospheric score.

Actually, that fellow has now talked about it a few times, which I think is good for his psyche. The first people he told weren't in the media at all; they were the family of the young girl with whom he swapped desks. After that, speaking to me was relatively easy. So no, he's no interview slut (although I've met more than a few). He cried when he told me that he had waited fifty years before he could bring himself to say anything to the girl's family.

I also found it fascinating that natural gas was once so abundant in those East Texas oilfields that people heated their homes for free. According to longtime residents, so many small wells were burning off gas that you could drive from Kilgore to Henderson (about 12-15 miles, I think) at night without resorting to headlights.
posted by palinode at 7:43 PM on March 18, 2005

Wow... wow wow. Reading this now, and tearing up as I read it. Thanks for posting this, mudpuppie.

A student, bleeding and in shock, approached rescue workers, begging that they help his best friend. When asked where he was, the boy pointed upward toward highline wires that stretched between two still-standing poles. Lying across them, 30 feet in the air, was a body.

You can't make up something that f***ed up. Argh.
posted by BoringPostcards at 9:27 PM on March 18, 2005

my dad used to tell a story about the our lady of the angels fire ... he wasn't anywhere near there, so i don't know where he heard it from ... supposedly, this guy was up on the 2nd floor when it happened and it became apparent that the kids were going to have to jump ... he told a couple of kids that the way to do it was to jump, make sure you hit on your feet and roll into a somersault as they did so ... the two girls did that and walked away unscathed ... then he jumped and broke both his ankles

i knew about the bath, mi school dynamiting from him ... he lived in lansing and was a kid when it happened ... it took decades for the town to recover

wasn't aware of the texas tragedy ... odd how some things are forgotten like that
posted by pyramid termite at 10:39 PM on March 18, 2005

Thanks, palinode. It seems like you have a neat job.

Also, I was just using interview slut to be flippant; he seemed really upset actually. Now I'm sorry.
posted by dame at 11:13 PM on March 18, 2005

Was doing okay till I got to this
One story that was true, however, involved a father who earlier in the day had found his children at a nearby fishing hole, playing hooky. He'd scolded them and personally delivered them to school just hours before the explosion killed them.
posted by adzm at 11:58 PM on March 18, 2005

I'm glad someone posted a link to the Aberfan disaster - the similarities are too great not to. I grew up with stories about what happened in that village - my father was a young man in Cardiff when it happened. Interestingly, he commented that many of the familes of children who survived the disaster left the village within the next few years. Either through feeling guilty that they were 'lucky' or being ostracised by those whose children had been killed, they felt they could no longer stay.
posted by tim_in_oz at 12:05 AM on March 19, 2005

Right after I finished high school and was an overnight DJ at the regional AM country station near my small town, at 5:00 AM one morning in my hometown a house blew up and basically ceased to exist. This happens all the time, of course. But in this case the house belonged to two middle-aged grandparents who had their six grandchildren staying with them over the weekend. All eight people were killed. My family was awakened by the blast about six blocks away, but I was at that time finishing my shift. I got the news over the AP wire and phone calls from the news director. I drove home and went immediately to the site of the blast. I realize that people see tragic things all the time and many people have seen far worse, but I will never forget the deep sorrow and shock I felt as I watched the firemen carry those tiny bodies away from the rubble.

The cause was some city work done on a sewer line in the street in front of the home. They had damaged a natural gas line and didn't know it. That gas accumulated for about two weeks in the ground and the crawlspace under the house until it reached the level of something that ignited it, like a pilot light. It's heavier than air, a point most know but not mentioned in that article—there really wasn't an opportunity for anyone in that house to have smelled the gas.

One of the most horrific gas explosions I've read about was the Pecos River Crossing pipeline explosion1 a few years ago. A family was having a picnic (reunion?) near the site and 12 people were killed. It was a huge explosion.

1 Sorry, I couldn't find a better link, though I know they exist.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:11 AM on March 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

The History Channel airs a show called Modern Marvels and there was an episode titled Engineering Disasters where I caught this. I'm in China so I sometimes grab random torrents and have no idea when this aired. It is tragic to see all of the parents and townspeople clearing debris. Apparently they did such a quick and thorough job that it hindered the investigations.

Nicely done, mudpuppie.
posted by geekyguy at 6:54 AM on March 19, 2005

Fascinating links, and fascinating thread. I am rather gruesomely drawn to disaster and survivor stories. As a kid, I went to a parochial school named Our Lady of the Angels, so we heard the story of that fire in the other OLA over and over again...the nuns managed to wreak a fair amount of survivor guilt out of all of us, thousands of miles and years removed though we were, heh.

I read the accounts of the TX survivors with some recognition, the flying up through the air. I was in a gas explosion once, so damn lucky that it wasn't worse. I waitressed in a popular bar in my hometown when I was younger. One slow afternoon, I was walking to a table carrying six beer mugs in each hand, oktoberfest style, when next thing I knew I was swept off my feet and shot up in the air - I could see the door of the bar fly open in a whoosh and then close, everything rose up, loose items like placemats flew through the air, the beer in the mugs shot straight up. I flew up and fell down flat on my bum, still holding all mugs upright, most liquid intact, it had shot straight up and much fell right back in the glasses. I was dazed, had no idea what had occurred, it all happened so fast. For a second the few patrons and I all seemed frozen, looking at each other in wonder and then the bartender yelled "gas" and we all ran out the door and away from the building. Firetrucks came and pulled two gas workers out from the basement where they had been working. They were sitting waiting for an ambulance and I was relieved that they looked okay from a distance. The bar owner was with them so I went over to talk to him, and I saw an awful sight - their hands, arms, and faces were bright red and skin was hanging and peeling from them - it was terrible to see, I tried to keep the shock from my face because I didn't want to alarm them further about their injuries. They were horribly burned but I think they both later recovered. They had been capping a line in the basement when the accident occurred. I suffered nothing more than a few bruises, a sore bum, and a fear of gas. However, I came to think that death by explosion might not be a bad way to go because things happened so astoundingly quickly that the fear/adrenaline thing didn't even kick in while it was occurring.

That little bar was jinxed. Six months earlier, I was working in it one night when a fire ravaged the building. All the bar patrons got out, but tenants of the building had harrowing rescues and one tenant was killed. Watching firefighters run in a burning building and rescue people was the most dramatic thing I hope to ever see. I have had a hero thing for firefighters ever since ;-)
posted by madamjujujive at 7:00 AM on March 19, 2005 [2 favorites]

mudpuppie, sorry - I got so caught up in my own recollections I forgot to thank you for the links ;-)
posted by madamjujujive at 7:13 AM on March 19, 2005

Excellent post. Lot's of familiar place and company names(from growing up in TX), and yet I've never heard of this disaster. Thanks, mudpuppie.
posted by lobakgo at 11:16 AM on March 19, 2005

Dame: I was just using interview slut to be flippant; he seemed really upset actually. Now I'm sorry.

No need. After a few years of talking with people who've gone through disasters, flippancy becomes a necessary response, as often by survivors as by the general public. I find that people incapable of flippancy are often pretending to depth.
posted by palinode at 12:46 PM on March 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

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