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Cronkite's 'Awful Day'

Joe Holley

Michael Ramey, an IT guru here at The Post and a fellow Texan, reminds me that Walter Cronkite covered his first big story at age 20, when he was one of the first reporters on the scene of a horrendous school explosion that killed nearly 300 children in the small East Texas town of New London. Although it's rarely recalled today, beyond the bounds of East Texas, the New London explosion remains the deadliest school disaster in American history.

The year was1937, and the residents of New London were justifiably proud of their new school building, constructed with revenues from recent East Texas oil strikes. On the afternoon of March 18, shortly before students were to be let out for the day, a vocational education instructor turned on a sanding machine in an area that, unknown to him, was filled with a mixture of gas and air. The switch ignited the mixture and carried the flame into a dead-air space beneath the building.

A low rumblng sound was the only warning. Almost Immediately the brick-and-frame building seemed to lift into the air and then smash into the ground. Walls collapsed. The roof caved in and buried its victims in a mass of brick, steel and concrete. A car 200 feet from the school was crushed under a 2-ton slab of concrete hurled from the building. The online account from the Depot Museum in nearby Henderson, Tex., notes that "some of the flying wreckage included children, thrown through the air like broken rag dolls."

Within minutes, news of the explosion had been relayed over telephone and Western Union lines. Frantic parents rushed to the school building. Community residents and oilfield roughnecks brought in heavy equipment. The governor sent in the Texas Rangers. Doctors and medical supplies came from hospitals in Dallas, Shreveport and elsewhere.

Cronkite, a cub reporter recently assigned to the Dallas bureau of United Press International, was one of the first reporters to reach the scene. To make sure that he could get to the site, he abandoned his car and hitched a ride on a fire department searchlight truck that had just arrived from Beaumont, Tex. When he finally got to the grim scene, it was dark. A cold rain had begun to fall. Workers continued to dig through the rubble looking for victims as floodlights illuminated their frantic efforts.

The UPI team that eventually joined Cronkite set up a news bureau in a nearby Western Union office. For four days, the young reporter took occasional catnaps in his car and regularly fed coins into a pay phone to call CBS radio in New York to relay what was happening. The network put him on the air each time he called.

Of the 500 students and 40 teachers in the building, approximately 298 died. Only about 130 students escaped serious injury.

In the ensuing months, official hearings conducted by the state of Texas and the U.S. Bureau of Mines revealed that the school had received its gas from the United Gas Company and to save expenses of $300 a month, plumbers, with the knowledge and approval of school officials, had tapped a residue gas line belonging to the Parade Gasoline Company. School officials saw nothing wrong with the practice, because natural gas in those days was considered a waste product that was usually "flared off." Schools, churches and homes in the East Texas oilfields often used "green" or "wet" gas as a way to save money. Investigators concluded that gas had escaped from a faulty connection and accumulated beneath the building, and since green gas has no odor, no one knew it was accumulating. No school officials were found liable.

The most important result of the disaster was the passage of a state odorization law requiring that distinctive malodorants be mixed in all gas for commercial and industrial use so that the smell would signal any leaks.

Decades later the man who covered wars, disasters and assassinations around the world recalled his baptism of fire in East Texas. "I did nothing in my studies nor in my life to prepare me for a story of the magnitude of that New London tragedy," Cronkite wrote, "nor has any story since that awful day equaled it."

By Joe Holley  |  July 20, 2009; 2:40 PM ET
Categories:  Joe Holley  
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Thanks for providing this interesting piece about Walter Cronkite and the New London school disaster. As for Cronkite's having worked for United Press International in 1937, I know you know UPI didn't exist until United Press and Hearst's International News Service merged 21 years later, in 1958, so you need to tell your editors to quit introducing errors into your copy.

Posted by: roger20 | July 21, 2009 3:06 PM | Report abuse

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