Members of the New London community and surrounding areas gathered en masse Thursday afternoon to commemorate the March 18, 1937 blast that destroyed the New London School and tragically took the lives of more than 295 students and teachers.
Survivors of the tragedy and family members of those lost on that faithful day gather annually to remember those who did not walk away, those whose names are carved in granite on a cenotaph stretching high into a sky filled with smoke, dust, and devastation 84 years ago.
On a warm spring afternoon, only moments away from the ringing of the final bell that would release the more than 700 students and teachers inside the walls of the New London School, a blast ripped through the building. A blast that could felt miles away from the apex of the tragic event.
As students reveled in a “Mexican Hat Dance” performed by a small group of their peers, natural gas was filling their classrooms from an unknown leak in the basement. Life would change for an entire community as one small spark ignited those fateful fumes.
As the dust and debris settled the devastation was clear and the community rushed together to save those they could and recover those already lost.
“What once was a well-manicured schoolyard was suddenly a heap of concrete and steel covered by a thick layer of dust,” said Fred Parsons, Pastor of Overton’s First United Methodist Church and speaker for the day’s event.
Nearby residents, family members, and oilfield workers swarmed the rubble and began the rushed task of clearing away debris. A passing truck filled with bushel baskets meant for the delivery of peaches was confiscated to create a bucket brigade. As word of the destruction spread so did those coming to aid in the rescue operation. Fireman, police, National Guard, Boy Scouts, the Salvation Army, doctors, nurses, and eventually morticians and embalmers arrived in droves.
Mass funerals became the norm with Parsons recounting a survivor’s tale of attending 23 funerals in one afternoon.
Rachel Lurene Ledbetter, formerly known as Lurene Sutton, is a survivor of the 1937 blast and a regular attendee of these commemorative events. Even at 96 years old Ledbetter recounted events from that day as though it were only yesterday. “They had all the school do an act and we won doing a Mexican hat dance. That’s the only reason I’m still alive.” The PTA’s insistence that the festivities be moved to the school’s gymnasium kept many of the school’s children away from the blast, saving countless lives.
“We had just got back over there and changed out of our costumes and started to walk out to the bus and I saw a big flash of light,” continued Ledbetter with clear remembrance in her eyes.
This hometown tragedy led to emergency legislation that mandated the addition of thiols to natural gas so their strong sulfuric odor would make leaks quickly detectable.
While the tragedy can never be lessened and the broken hearts of the loved ones left behind could never be fully mended the granite cenotaph stands, a testament to those lost and a reminder that innumerable lives have been saved decades beyond that terrible day.