From his granddaughter, Debra K. Seacrist, who wrote: "I found your website and am sending you my Granddad's story. He was part of the volunteer rescue team. He is 95 years old and every year goes for the anniversary ceremony in New London. I grew up hearing this story and it has been a part of our family history. To this day, he still has nightmares about what happened. The words are his own, I changed nothing."
THE EXPLOSION THAT SHOOK THE NATION
By Howard Coleman
The New London School Explosion
It was a beautiful spring day in East Texas on March
18, 1937, at 3:20 P.M., when this terrible blast that
shook the heart of East Texas, and the Nation.
The people of the community were proud of their beautiful
new school building and campus. Money was no object, at
that time, they built the best. The school was the pride
of New London patrons, and the envy of the surrounding
area. The oil Boom had settled down, people were working
and life was good. Men and their families were enjoying
good jobs for a change, many of us had struggled through
the great depression.
Before I try to explain my part in this tragedy, I
would like to present a picture of how most of the working
men felt about living in the New London, -Old London,
Texas area. There were thousands living and working in
the surrounding area. Playing together/working together
and praying together. My wife and I lived just east of
the school, I was employed by an Independent Oil Company.
Carolyn, the oldest daughter was five, and attended
the Kindergarten on the campus. It was a wooden building
west of the main school building. She was picked up at
noon every day, and was safely at home when the explosion occurred.
My wife and I were so thankful.
I was off duty that afternoon, we were getting the
youngsters ready to go to a movie in Overton. When the
blast sounded, the house shook, I knew at once that something terrible had happened. Since I worked in the Oil
field, and there was a rig running, almost in a straight
line between where I lived and the school, my first thought
was that a steam boiler had blown up. At that time the drilling
rigs were all powered by steam. I ran outside and could see
dust and debris in the air. I got the family in the car
and went looking for the trouble.When we arrived at the
drilling rig, all was well there. The rig crew had heard
the explosion and shut the rig down and were preparing
to search for the trouble.
I drove the short distance to Old London, I began
to meet people coming from the west, I stopped a motorist
and ask if he knew where the explosion was. He told me
that he heard it was the school building. We arrived at
the school about twenty-five or thirty minutes after the
blast. I parked the car near the high wire fence surrounding
the school property. It was about forty yards from the
school building. I could not believe what I was seeing.
That beautiful two story school building was completely
shattered, only a few walls standing, and they were at
a crazy angle. I went over the fence and approached what
had been the school building. What I saw that day is still
impressed in my mind. All I could see was mangled steel
and concrete with small bodies everywhere. I suppose I
was in shock, I thought I could not stand to go in there.
Then I thought about my wife and children, I turned and
ran back to my car, where they were waiting. I told my
wife that I could not go in there. I took my wife and
small children home, A neighbor came to stay with them.
When I arrived back at the school building, there
were hundreds of cars parked nearby, and workmen were
trying to do what they could. After circling the building,
to build up my courage, I joined them. I saw tough oil
field men crying, but still tearing away at that rubble
with their bare hands. Many of these men were my friends,
many were working in a dazed condition hunting their own
children. Some would ask. "Have you seen my little Johnny
or my little Susie?" You could only answer in the negative.
Many of the bodies could only be identified by the clothing
I have to admit, I was no hero, I could not make myself
handle those broken bodies. I had to leave that part to
braver than myself. I could handle the broken concrete and
steel, I had to be content to help move the derbris.
As I remember it now, before dark that evening, the
Oil Companies began sending every available piece of
machinery at their disposal, to help move the heavy
wreckage of the building. This was a great help. the
oil field was practically shut down. All personal was
sent to the school to work clearing away the debris. There
was very little talking, as I remember, many hands were
bleeding from handling the rough concrete. The Salvation
Army came later handing out cotton gloves, they helped,
but soon were worn through. To these people I shall
always be grateful for their thoughtfulness.
My Superintendent came got me to go with him. He
took me to one of our oilfield trucks equipped with
a heavy steel wench line. It was being used to tie on
to the heavy pieces of wreckage, and pull it out of
the way in order to reach more bodies. The young man
operating the wench was so shook up, he was endangering
other workmen near by. I operated the truck for several
hours, then was relieved by another workman.
I joined a work crew going into the basement Manual
Training room. It was equipped with all kinds of wood
working machinery. When we cleared away the wreckage
covering the floor, we found the bodies of several young
men - all dead, they were Junior or Senior students.
I never knew. As I remember, they were all laying on
the floor, side by side. We heard a call for "Help".
When we worked our way to him, he was conscious and
could talk to us. He was trapped under a huge cement
slab, from his waist down. There was no way we could
lift that heavy slab off him. He kept telling us to
hurry his body was getting cold. Thanks to one of my
co-workers called "Pop", remembered he had two heavy
duty hydraulic jacks on his truck. When he returned
with the jacks, several men came with him and helped set
the jacks under the slab of cement to try raise it off our
young friend. As we started jacking, the cement started
crumbling, but we kept trying. Would you believe, two firemen
whom Pop had spoken to, came with two more jacks. With this
help, we were finally able to raise the concrete slab enough
to get our young man out from under it. He was rushed to the
hospital. One happy note, he fully recovered.
The next morning, the picture had changed very
little, some of us backed away, trying to stretch our weary
bones, and drink some cool water and coffee, some one brought
around giving to the working men.
My Company Superintendent came to me and assigned me
a family, instructing me to remain with that family until
all of this was cleared up. He gave me a one hundred dollar
bill to help with expenses, and said there was more if needed.
These funds came from the company owner.
I won't call any names, but we will always have have a soft
spot in my heart for this fine old gentleman. Not only for his
generosity, but for the fact, he gave me employment for over
I was assigned a fellow worker, who had lost a
seventeen year old son. To say the least, this family was
completely devastated, like all the other parents that lost
children in this terrible blast that shook the nation. Then
came the heart breaking task of trying to help this
distraught Mother and Father locate their son for burial.
Bodies were taken to Overton, Henderson, and every little
town there was a place for them like gymnasiums, funeral homes
and churches. On the third day, we located their son. We
had overlooked him several times, and failed to recognize
him. I suppose a Mother's instinct will lead her to her
child. She remembered what color shirt he had worn to school
that fatal morning. You might say,"How could this happen?"
Who knows, I say "Some one watches over all of us."
My friends originally came from Arkansas, and wanted
their son to be hurried there. The problem was to find
transportation to Arkansas. Every hearse or vehicle possible
was being used to carry bodies to the cemetery. before I
gave up, some one told me Mr. Alford of Alford Motors
in Henderson, Texas, was furnishing every vehicle he had to
those who needed them. Because I knew Mr. Alford, I rushed
to Henderson. When I walked in, I met him in the lobby, and
told him my sad story, and my need of a vehicle to transport
a body to Arkansas for burial. He just looked at me and said
the only thing he had left was a little Ford flat bed truck,
and that I could have the truck. He had it serviced and
filled with gasoline. He even assigned one of his salesman
to go to Junction City, Arkansas, with me as I was to drive
the family car. It took us three days to make the trip, and
bring the family back home. I will always be grateful to
those who gave assistance, when it was so badly needed.
Mr. Alford furnished every vehicle at his disposal to
others in need. He refused any compensation for this service.
That's an American, to help, when people are really in need.
I do not write this article for any glory for myself,
but to let people know that after more than fifty years, and
my eightieth year, I still grieve for those people who lost
loved ones, at the same time I feel grateful toward so
many who gave of themselves, and demonstrated a great love
and generosity to their fellow men and women who had suffered
through this tragedy.
The paper stated two hundred ninety four lives were
lost that day. Today as I visit the beautiful Monument erected
in memory of those whose life was snuffed out that day in March,
with all of the names inscribed in gray granite, these names
nudge my memory, and my heart still feels sadness, and brings
back many memories, of that terrible day, so many lives were
lost. The Memorial is erected in the middle of the streets
directly in front of the beautiful new school building, and
Charlie McConico's old drug store, on the other side of the
street. Charlie's place was where the working men could go
to dring coffee or a coke, and chat a few minutes in better
As I look out over that modern school building, my
heart skips a beat, and across my mind flashes the horrible
vision of yesteryear, in all of its reality.
An after thought, in writing this article, I do not try
to paint a complete picture of all the anguish, suffering and
horrible deeds that happened during those dreadful days.
I am not qualified to do that, it would take many pages, and
a greater mind than mine to cover the picture as a whole. I
only tried to give you a one on one experience, of what actually
happened to me personally. Those first few days were hundreds
of men doing the same things that I was doing, maybe more.
It covered many days even weeks and involved so many individual
families, touched by this, one of the greatest tragedies that
hit East Texas area. There are not many of my group left, after
all these years. Every now and then I run into someone who
was there, of course we reminisce about our experiences. Maybe
I didn't even know him, but there is always a feeling of comradship, because of the fact we were there.