Recollections

Howard Coleman


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 they wore.

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 forty years.

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 times.

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.

     

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