The little east Texas town of New London lost its mayor last week, when Mayor Mollie Ward resigned, at the age of 81. Mrs. Ward was Mayor for eight years, and a member of the city council for sixteen years before that, but she’s not planning to retire. You see, Mollie Ward is something of a legend in New London, because she’s one of the survivors of one of the worst disasters in American history — the New London school explosion of 1937. Houston Public Radio’s Jim Bell reports.
No one old enough to remember 1937 will ever forget what happened in New London, Texas on March 18th of that year. A natural gas explosion in the basement of the New London school destroyed the building and killed 298 people, mostly children. Mollie Ward was ten years old then, and her dance class did a small show for the PTA meeting that afternoon. The auditorium was too small for the program and the meeting, so it was all moved to the gymnasium in another building. That’s why Ward is alive to tell about it today.
“By us moving to the gym, it saved the students’ lives, the mothers and the teachers, and it was a miracle that we were out there.”
But not for the children and teachers in the main building, where leaking natural gas had filled up the basement, and where just before school was to let out, the gas ignited when an employee started a piece of electrical machinery. The explosion tore the building apart and reduced it to a pile of rubble. Mrs. Ward says surviving teachers quickly took surviving children to the school buses to send them home, and she’ll never forget how sad that trip was.
“And when I got to my bus stop, I was the only one that got off, and there was eight mothers standing there waiting for their children. Now this is where I really want to cry. They started screaming and crying ‘have you seen Dorothy? Have you seen Geneva? Have you seen Bill? You know, different of their children.”
News of the disaster spread quickly. People raced to the school from miles around, and roughnecks from nearby oil fields brought in heavy equipment to remove the rubble and recover bodies.
“One wall was ready to fall over, and when all the 2,000 men from the oilfield came to help dig bodies out, they was held up one hour. They had to get that wall pulled down in order for them to start with those heavy machines pulling up concrete and things like that before they could find children.”
Reporters, photographers and the curious converged on New London from everywhere. A 20-year-old United Press reporter named Walter Cronkite drove in from Dallas. Sixty years after he walked among the mangled bodies, Cronkite said it was the worst civilian tragedy he’d ever covered.
Funerals for the lost children and teachers went on for months and left emotional scars on New London that have never healed, to this day. Mrs Ward says she couldn’t even talk about it for many years, and even now, more than 70 years later, it’s still hard to think about.
“If I get to reminiscing too much about my friends, and you know different things like that, and what really happened when I got home, I get upset. But, I don’t mind talkin’ about it now. A lot of’em wouldn’t even talk about it to nobody, but when my children got to the age I was, I told’em about the school explosion, and that opened me up where I can talk about it.”
The entire town was in a state of shock. The people of New London were suffering collectively from what we now know was post-traumatic stress. Then, in the mid 1970s, small groups of survivors and families of the lost started holding private reunions.
“By having those reunions, it was a healing process for them where they could talk about, and after we started that museum everybody started giving their interviews. When they started to realize, by speaking about it, it was a healing process.”
Ward says she didn’t start understanding what happened that day until she got into junior high and high school. The more she learned the more she wanted to know and her curiousity became a passion that became her life’s work.
“Years later after my girls finished school and left, were married, I thought I got to find me something to do, so I got to doing research on it. My mother bought me all kinds of books, and I saved every paper that ever came out, and I started doing research.”
Over time, Mollie Ward became the unofficial expert on the 1937 explosion. In 1981, she helped organize the official New London School Reunion that’s held every year on the anniversary. It draws people from all over the world. In 1992, as a member of the City Council, she spearheaded creation of the New London Explosion Museum.
The New London disaster had one positive result that’s still beneficial today. Before 1937, you couldn’t smell gas leaks because natural gas has no odor when it comes out of the ground. That’s why so much gas could collect and build up in the school basement. No one could smell it.
“When the school explosion happened, the court of inquiry and the Bureau of Mines from the state, they all came in here to investigate. And it was at that time, that when they go back before the legislature to pass the law that we put some kind of odor into the lines where gas can be smelled.”
Because of the New London disaster, gas companies were immediately required to add a chemical odor to the gas before distributing it to customers. Today you can smell the pungent odor in the gas coming out of your gas appliances because of what happened in New London.
Because of her husband’s poor health, Mollie Ward is finally leaving New London. He and she are moving to Arkansas to be near relatives who can help take care of him, but she has no plans to stop telling New London’s story. She’s taking all her research and her collection of newspaper and magazine articles with her, and she’ll make it and herself available to any school or group that will allow her to speak.
There’s more information about the New London school disaster, and photographs of the aftermath, in a link on our website KUHF dot org. Jim Bell, Houston Public Radio News.