The estimated death toll varies from 296 to 319. It’s impossible to know the exact number. New London, which is in Rusk county, at the time was filled with transient oilfield workers and the school records were destroyed in the blast. Approximately 600 students and 40 teachers were in the building at the time. Only about 130 escaped without serious injury.
The cause of the explosion of a build-up of natural gas in the school. Three months earlier the school board canceled the contract with the United Gas Company to save $300 a month. The school district, which due to the oil boom was considered the richest in the nation, had a plumber tap into a residue gas line of a local oil company to get free natural gas. The gas line connection was faulty and leaked. In the days following the explosion parents wanted answers. Over 70 lawsuits were filed. They were all dismissed. No school officials were found liable.
This weekend in New London, survivors of the explosion will gather at the school grounds in front of a 30 foot granite monument and remember March 18, 1937, and the lives lost that day.
The story of the New London Explosion and its aftermath is told in a new book called “Gone at 3:17: The Untold Story of the Worst School Disaster in American History.”
David M. Brown is a co-author of the book along with Michael Wereschagin. It’s published by Potomac Books.