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Thu April 5, 2012
75 Years Later: The Day The Town School Exploded
Originally published on Fri April 6, 2012 12:01 am
One of the worst school disasters in American history occurred 75 years ago, when an explosion killed hundreds of students at a school in East Texas. It was an event that etched itself into the memory of Kenneth Honeycutt, now 83.
"It was an explosion in the school building that led to the death of 300 students and teachers," he says. "It was caused by an accumulation of gas throughout the school building."
Honeycutt grew up near the oil fields of New London, Texas. And as he recalled during a visit to StoryCorps with his wife, Gaye, he was very close to the school when calamity struck. Honeycutt was just 8 at the time — a third-grader.
"My younger brother, Baxter, and I were playing outside, and there was the loudest explosion that you can imagine," he says.
"I turned — and it looked as if the entire back wall of the school was slowly falling over."
The explosion came just after 3 p.m., moments before the final bell that would have dismissed students for the day. The catastrophe became known as the New London School Explosion of 1937. Among the reporters sent to cover the story was a young Walter Cronkite.
In those days, New London was at the center of the Texas oil boom. And the town had spent some of its newfound wealth to build a large school, where students in grades five-11 attended classes.
"I had a lot of relatives going to school then," Honeycutt says. "My cousin Forrest was in the sixth grade; my Aunt Elson in the 10th grade. Forrest was killed. My Aunt Elson had back injuries, but the major effect on her was emotional. She lived a very anxiety-filled life from then on."
"This event seared my brain for life. I can remember almost every detail of it."
The March 18 explosion was reportedly caused when pockets of natural gas that had leaked from the school's heating system were suddenly ignited by a spark. Investigators attributed the gas's presence to the then-common practice of tapping into oil companies' gas lines. The odorless gas had collected inside the school without anyone's realizing it.
"I had led a life of crime up to that point. I had snitched a few things from a grocery store across from us," Honeycutt says. "And I felt that God had punished me, by causing this school to blow up. And that remained something that I truly believed, almost until I was an adult. But the effect, I still feel today."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Nadia Reiman and Katie Simon.