The night lost children lay in the rain.

New London school lay in ruins, and the tragedy still haunts us all.
New London school lay in ruins, and the tragedy still haunts us all.

TRAGEDY STRIKES and I grieve for the lost children.

I know the lost children.

I grew up in a community of lost children.

In the second grade, I walked for the first time down the hallways of New London elementary school in the midst of the East Texas oilfield.

A new school.

A modern school.

It was, everyone swore, the finest school in Texas.

It was the school that oil and gas built.

It had been the school that oil and gas destroyed.

And I walked among the memories of lost children.

Their names were still mentioned in whispers.

Families still wept at their graves.

No one had forgot .

No one even tried.

It had been a chilled and overcast March 18 afternoon in 1937. Children were laughing and ending another school day. Their books were stacked on their desks. Some had already begun lining up in the hallway.

The clock on the wall said three-thirty.

Maybe it was a minute or two fast – or slow – but it never mattered.

Five minutes more and the bell would ring.

Five minutes more and they would be on their way home.

The clock never reached three thirty-five.

No one knew or could have known about natural gas from the oilfield gathering beneath the basement. Gas had no odor. Gas was the silent killer.

No one ever knew what triggered the spark.

The sky was dark.

The rain was gently falling.

Every eye was on the clock.

And the world came to an end.

New London school exploded, and, as one newspaper correspondent would write: This small East Texas town of New London lost a generation today.

Almost three hundred would die.

They and their teachers lay in the rubble of broken bricks and concrete blocks, desks and books and steel girders ripped apart and twisted like ribbons of death.

There were screams.

And some moans.

Then silence fell upon the ruins of a school.

The only noise anyone heard were the prayers of mothers, the curses of oilfield roughnecks, and the gently falling of the rain.

My father worked in the oilfield. He was close. The oilfield wasn’t that big.

My mother was a waitress in a small café just down in the road in Turnertown.

They – as did hundreds of others – rushed madly to the scene.

The search for lost children went on through a desperate night.
The search for lost children went on through a desperate night.

My father tore through bricks and twisted metal until his gloves had been ripped off and both hands were bleeding.

He did not leave.

No one left.

My father never talked about it.

My mother did, but not often.

Some parents drove to the pile of rubble. Fathers raced from their jobs. Mothers ran from their homes.

They searched all afternoon.

And all night.

Searching for the living.

And, after a while, just searching.

They walked down the hallways of hospitals.

They walked through the makeshift morgues in warehouses and gymnasiums.

Row after row of blankets.

Row after row, the blankets covered the tiny bodies.

They were searching for the lost children.

There were so many of them.

They feared they would find their child, or children.

Then they feared they wouldn’t.

My mother held one little lady most of the night. Both of them were on their knees in field of brick mortar and mud.

Her face was white, drained of all blood and emotion.

She had cried until there were no tears left.

Her heart had become part of the rubble around her.

Over and over, she kept saying, “It’s so sad.”

Mother nodded.

“My boy’s here,” the little lady said.

Mother held her tighter.

“He’s seven,” the little lady said.

Mother shed her last tear.

“It’s so sad,” the little lady said again. “He’s had to lie all night in the rain.”

He was among them then.

He still is.

Just a name belonging to one of the lost children.

My heart breaks for them all, then and now. We will never know the impact they might have made upon the world. We only know the impact they made upon our lives on a night they lay in the rain.

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  • What a story to grow up with. The death of children always seems so unfair: they survived getting born – and all their parents have invested in them.

    Our generations are not used to losing children – this was so common in previous ones that some didn’t name the children unless they had survived to a certain point. But the rest of the world is not as lucky.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      As an aside, Alicia, this was the story that launched the career of a young UPI reporter stationed in Dallas. His name was Walter Cronkite. For months after the explosion, you could hear wails of agony echoing in the pines around New London. Some said they were the cries of the children. Others believed they were the cries of the parents. I often thought both were right.

  • Sally Berneathy

    Wow. You are such a good writer. I’m saving this one to study how you evoked so much emotion with just the facts. Awesome writing.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Thanks so much for your kind comments, Sally. The story tells itself. I just brought along a number two pencil and Big Chief tablet.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    I enrolled in New London exactly ten years after the explosion and would through the underpass to eat hamburgers at Charlie McConnico’s drug store. It now houses a museum of that terrible day, and it’s one of the finest little museums you will ever see. If you’re ever lost in East Texas, I would recommend you look it up. You will find a letter from Adolph Hitler hanging on the wall. He wrote in 1937 to offer his condolences.

  • April Coker

    Well said. I once visited that little museum and spoke to the lady who curated it. I don’t think she is with us any more, but I may be wrong. My own children were small at the time and nothing has ever haunted me like the lone little shoe on display that belonged to one of the lost children. What a horrible tragedy. Thank you for sharing the story.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      April: I’m sure the lady you met was Mrs. Sands, the mother of one of my best friends, Sandy Sands. She was a fixture in the museum for many years. Going through the museum is a sobering experience.

  • Don Newbury

    At the risk of trivializing, Caleb, it just occurred to me that my mother was pregnant with me at the time of this tragedy. I was born about five months later. News traveled slowly in those days, and the New London event accounts may not have reached rural Brown County for a while. And I know they had no radio. Nearest neighbors were a mile or so away, and few people had automobiles. My mother, always the emotional type, could easily have miscarried had she heard this news.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I’m glad she didn’t hear the news, Don. We would all be lost without you.

  • This story brought tears to my eyes. What a horrible tragedy, made personal by the little lady kneeling in the rubble.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Thanks, Maurine. It was a rainy night no one every forgot.

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