Gone at 3:17: The Untold Story of the Worst School Disaster in American History

Gone at 3:17: The Untold Story of the Worst School Disaster in American History

David M Brown, Michael Wereschagin

Language: English

Pages: 317


Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

At 3:17 p.m. on March 18, 1937, a natural gas leak beneath the London Junior-Senior High School in the oil boomtown of New London, Texas, created a lethal mixture of gas and oxygen in the school’s basement. The odorless, colorless gas went undetected until the flip of an electrical switch triggered a colossal blast. The two-story school, one of the nation’s most modern, disintegrated, burying everyone under a vast pile of rubble and debris. More than 300 students and teachers were killed, and hundreds more were injured.

As the seventy-fifth anniversary of the catastrophe approaches, it remains the deadliest school disaster in U.S. history. Few, however, know of this historic tragedy, and no book, until now, has chronicled the explosion, its cause, its victims, and the aftermath.

Gone at 3:17 is a true story of what can happen when school officials make bad decisions. To save money on heating the school building, the trustees had authorized workers to tap into a pipeline carrying “waste” natural gas produced by a gasoline refinery. The explosion led to laws that now require gas companies to add the familiar pungent odor. The knowledge that the tragedy could have been prevented added immeasurably to the heartbreak experienced by the survivors and the victims’ families. The town would never be the same.

Using interviews, testimony from survivors, and archival newspaper files, Gone at 3:17 puts readers inside the shop class to witness the spark that ignited the gas. Many of those interviewed during twenty years of research are no longer living, but their acts of heroism and stories of survival live on in this meticulously documented and extensively illustrated book.

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and others who either experienced the New London school explosion in person or had direct knowledge about it from family members who lived through the disaster. Other interviews were conducted for background with people who had direct knowledge of experiences in the oil fields of East Texas, the Great Depression, and the historical background of the story’s setting. To all those who shared their stories, we say thank you from our hearts; without you no book of this scope and depth would have been

a nursery with a glass partition so flathers, grandparents, and friends could look in on newborns without contaminating the sterile atmosphere around the babies; and a pharmacy. A room on the main floor was converted into “a small but beautiful chapel.” The custom-made altar wasn’t yet installed, but a small organ was in place. “Since some of the Sisters had a designated ward on the first floor as their living quarters, that room became a temporary ‘warehouse’ for whatever could not be arranged

him on days like this. The first was “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” The other was even more potent: “It is what it is.” No amount of embellishment could polish flimsy facts; great facts made a clean, lean story shine like a lamp in the dark. One of the phones rang. McKnight grabbed the receiver, “AP, McKnight.” The connection was bad. The man on the other end got out a couple of words through gulps of air. “Terrible, terrible explosion. Hundreds dead.” “Slow down. Say

the same rush-hour traffic. They stopped briefly at a roadside bootlegger’s venue to purchase supplies.11 Although liquor was legal again across the nation after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, much of Texas remained officially dry because of local option laws. Even so, booze was readily available, as always, at bootleggers, speakeasies, and some apothecaries that kept whiskey on hand for medicinal purposes, so to speak. And it wasn’t uncommon in those days for editors and reporters to keep a

right eye, an arm and leg were broken, and his insides were scrambled, damaging all his organs; amazingly, his heart continued to beat. The doctor decided it was best not to move him; he just kept the unconscious boy as comfortable as possible while a search was made for his parents. The doctor found a small pocketknife in one of the boy’s pockets; the knife’s handle was painted with fingernail polish. “Get a description of his clothes and this pocketknife on the radio,” the doctor told one of

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