The Day the World Ended. The Authors Collection.

Rescue workers frantically search the debris on the night after the explosion.
Rescue workers frantically search the debris on the night after the explosion.

My father journeyed to East Texas during the oil boom of 1931. His life had been suffocated by the Great Depression, and he was looking for a job. He would have gone anywhere. But in East Texas, oil was staining the ground black, and somebody had work for him to do.

My mother came to East Texas in 1934, escaping the trials and tribulations of hard times in South Louisiana. She went to work in a small café in Turnertown for one reason. She could have a slice of light bread any time she wanted one.

On the afternoon of March 18 in 1937, they heard the world come to an end.

Just down the road, not far from where they were working, the little school at New London exploded, leaving 297 students and teachers dying or already dead, lying among crumbled brick walls in a cold spring rain.

They were among the first to reach the scene, and all they heard around them were the sounds of sirens, screams, and grief.

Years later, I asked my mother to write about that day, and these are her words.

A sad aftermath. Photo credit: Mary Marshall
A sad aftermath. Photo credit: Mary Marshall

By Mary Eunice Price Pirtle

Later, I read the words of Dale Harrison, written for the Associated Press. He said: “There is no substance to dreams. They mean nothing. They have no significance.

“George M. Davidson of London, Texas, had a dream. It was the night of March 17. He dreamed of tragedy. It wasn’t very clear. It was of something terrible happening, and of people dying horribly and screaming, and mothers and men sobbing with heartbreak afterward,

“On the morning of March 18, the memory of the nightmare was strong upon him. It had become so real.

“’I had a terrible dream last night,’ he said.

“One of the children spoke up. ‘It’s bad luck to tell a dream before breakfast, daddy. If you do, then it will happen.’

“Mr. Davidson smiled. Such superstition was pish and task. There is no substance in dreams. They mean nothing.

“Fifteen hours later, he stood in a morgue and stared down upon three pitiful little forms. These were his children.”

Many parents went to the morgues – to the transformed dance halls and churches and schools and skating rinks that had become places of the dead. All were searching for familiar faces among the lifeless rows. They spoke to those in charge:

“He had brown eyes. He was such a little boy – my son.”

“I’m sure I could recognize her. She was always smiling.”

“He couldn’t have died. No. No. He was all we had.”

Words like those, voices that struggled to be brave but which shook with grief and fear, women moving aimlessly about, weeping, men staring ahead, glassy-eyed.

One man dropped dead as he stood before the twisted steel and shattered stone had been a school. What he saw killed him. Call it a heart attack if you want to. Actually it was horror.

Words have no adequacy for catastrophe as great as this. The mere words out of London that night were something like this:

“A Mysterious explosion destroyed the London Consolidated School this afternoon, and 297 persons, mostly children, were killed.”

There is not much drama in the words. The drama is in the imagination of him who reads and who, behind these words, sees the tottering walls, the terrified faces, and hears the high-pitched cries that chop off into sudden silence.

And drama lies, too, in the ifs that always whirl in the wake of calamity.

For instance:

The plan that day had been to release the pupils early so they might attend an athletic event. The youngsters had looked forward to it. At the last minute, the plan was abandoned. The pupils were not dismissed.

The change in plans was a death warrant. But you don’t know those things until it is over.

And this:

It was 3:20 p.m. when the explosion occurred. School would have been dismissed in ten minutes. They say gas had been piling up in the walls somehow, and that an electric spark set it off.

But why did it have to be at 3:20?

Fifteen or twenty minutes later, and hundreds of children would be laughing and romping today instead of lying there in Texas graveyards … just a matter of minutes.

One girl fell, and one leg struck the sharp edge of a broken window. It was a knife, slicing the limb cleanly through.

Another youngster, with frightened eyes, called to a rescue squad. “Please, will you help me?”

They lifted away the debris and took her out. She wasn’t hurt much. It was just that she had pinned there so long among the silent dead and the screaming injured, and she still remembered to say, “please.”

It isn’t likely anyone will ever know what caprice of fate made it happen or why one youngster could be in the very midst of flying stone and crashing ceilings and escape unhurt, and another had to die.

***

She knew so many families who lost children. From beneath the fractured bricks, she had pulled out so many who had to die. She never forgot the faces. She heard their cries for the rest of her life.

My mother placed her pencil aside and wrote no more. And she never spoke of the explosion again.

When I was seven years of age, I was enrolled in New London elementary school.

It had been remodeled and was one of the grandest schools in the country.

Oil and gas paid for it. Oil and gas flowed all around it. Oil and gas had once destroyed it.

I went to school in New London. I rode my bicycle for miles down the country oilfield roads. But none of us were ever allowed to go to the Mount Enterprise Cemetery when night threaded its way through the East Texas pines.

“Why not?” I once asked my mother.

She turned away with tears in her eyes. “The children are buried there,” she said. “You can still hear them crying after dark.”

I never heard them. But my mother did. The echoes from a day in March remained in her head for as long as she lived.

***

DeadlineNewsNewFront

Please click the book cover image to read more about Caleb Pirtle III and his books. Deadline News is a mystery set during the East Texas oil boom of the 1930s.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    The New London School Explosion is an East Texas tragedy that never heals no matter how many generations come and go.

  • Darlene Jones – Author

    Such a sad sad event. One can’t begin to imagine the horror for the families.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      As Walter Cronkite, a young UPI reporter, wrote: “This small East Texas town lost a generation today.” And so it did.

      • Darlene Jones – Author

        I never thought of it that way, but that’s so true.

  • Lana L. Higginbotham

    The secretary of a school superintendent I commuted with years ago shared her memories. She was not yet in school. It forever changed her family and community. The cataclysmic unseen danger altered everything.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Neither the community nor the people were ever the same again. The grief was forever.

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