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What I Learned Researching the Deadliest School Disaster in American History

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School tragedies have become agonizingly commonplace, but the school disaster that claimed the most lives in American history has been widely forgotten. On a sunny Friday afternoon in March of 1937, the students at the recently completed New London School in East Texas waited impatiently to be dismissed. Fifty PTA mothers watched a dance program put on by the younger children; older students were giving reports, taking tests or talking excitedly about the sports competition taking place over the weekend.

The New London School had cost a million dollars to build, financed by oil money in one of the wealthiest school districts in the country. It featured the finest materials and equipment money could buy, including a state-of-the-art shop in the basement. But no one knew that a leak had allowed natural gas to slowly accumulate in the basement. When a shop teacher turned on a sander at 3:17 pm, a spark ignited the gas and caused an explosion that destroyed most of the school, lifting the roof off the building and causing brick and glass and wood beams to fly through the air as the walls came down.

People from all over the town and the neighboring fields heard and felt the explosion and came running. Oil workers left their rigs, motorists got out of their cars, shopkeepers left their tills untended. Within moments, volunteers were searching frantically through the smoking rubble looking for survivors. Some rushed the injured to hospitals in nearby towns, while still others created a makeshift morgue where small bodies were draped with sheets. Reporters who started flooding in were put to work helping with the search, and grief-maddened parents searched mangled bodies for anything that might identify a child — a birthmark, a shoe, a necklace, a slingshot in a jeans pocket.

Some families lost one child, some several; some held on desperately even after there was no hope, while a few lucky ones assumed their children were dead, only to discover that they’d been misidentified or rushed off-site to receive care. The children of Mexican immigrants who’d come to work in the oil fields — only grudgingly allowed to enroll in the school — simply disappeared: their grieving families loaded up their belongings and headed back home to mourn. Reporters came from all over the world and mingled with volunteer nurses and undertakers; the remains of the school were dismantled and cleared as quickly as possible. The townspeople served coffee and sandwiches — and searched for bits of bodies torn apart in the blast, which they collected in peach baskets.

In the weeks to come, the residents of New London attended one funeral after another, and soon an entire section of the nearby Pleasant Hill cemetery had been given over to the lost children. I wandered through this cemetery when I went to New London to do research for a novel, and as I stood in that empty cemetery on a warm summer afternoon almost 80 years later, I tried to imagine what the residents of this small town went through in the days and months following the tragedy.

My research taught me that today’s tragedies are experienced differently by members of the communities in which they take place. When something terrible happens in a contemporary American town, first responders immediately seal a scene and the public is barred from view while reporters clamor for access. Their interviews with the tend to be voyeuristic but arms-length. The information they offer is limited, and often relies on set narratives about tragedy. Shooters are angry loners, bus drivers are careless or drunk, first responders are heroes, victims are all good kids, the town will never forget.

Eighty years ago, tragedies’ aftermaths differed in two key ways: because forces could not be mobilized with the speed they are today, many more volunteers pitched in to help; and because the news cycle was much longer, the story’s evolution lagged behind and echoed the experiences of the people who were there. The horrifying detail that had to be told over and over for its witness to get any peace became woven into the enduring history. In my research, I found that the keenest details came from the humblest sources: the rig worker who came running with his tools so he could help dig, the driver of the bread truck whose goods littered the schoolyard after he cleared the back to transport bodies, the strangers who helped mothers search the remains for something, anything to identify their children. These were people like you and me, as the saying goes.

Which is not to say that the modern response to disasters — the lack of a visceral connection to victims — is something to be regretted. Trauma experienced by bystanders is real and potentially devastating. And yet in shielding ourselves from the horror by sending our proxies to confront and report back, we can sometimes lose something important.

It took 40 years for the people of New London to be able to bear to revisit the tragedy, when the town began holding annual reunions for its survivors. In those four decades, though, the memories never stopped burning in the minds of all who were there that day. Perhaps people were kinder to each other afterward; perhaps they held tighter to their dear ones. As tragedy comes to seem commonplace and even routine in our culture, it becomes all too easy to turn away, the unintended consequence of our best efforts. We get distracted by something else and, ultimately, forget. It’s hard to look at the victims and survivors closely — but to remember them better, we must.

Sofia Grant is the author of The Daisy Children, a novel based on the 1937 New London school explosion, published by William Morrow this summer.

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