Remembering The 1937 New London Natural Gas Explosion

Two days and many, many more years ago, the town of London, Texas witnessed what might be considered the worst school gas explosion in the history of the oil and gas industry. The local school, powered by 72 natural gas heaters, exploded, killing 295 children and adults.

The cause of the explosion was twofold:

  1. A gas leak that was created when the school began using gas from the Parade Gas Company, and
  2. An ignition source – in this case, the start up of an electric sander by a shop teacher

The colorless, odorless gas ignited. The roof came down on the school and windows were blown out. Those who survived were tapped to help identify those who had not.

Now called New London, memories of the disaster have far from faded from the minds of those who were there that day or who lost friends and family in the natural gas explosion. The Pleasant Hill Cemetery became the permanent resting place of nearly 300 people who were killed 75 years ago in the sudden, deadly explosion.

From the tragedy that enveloped London, Texas on a Thursday afternoon in 1937 came at least one silver lining. Within weeks of the school explosion, the Texas Legislature required all natural gas companies to use an additive in natural gas that would alert people to a leak in hopes that a similar explosion could be avoided in the future. Natural gas now contains thiols or mercaptan, which give the odorless gas that ‘natural gas smell.’

A teacher at the London school had commented the morning of the explosion that her eyes were burning for some unknown reason. We now know that reason was likely the presence of natural gas in the air at the school.

Source: KETK, “New London Disaster 75th anniversary,” March 19, 2013