The greatest school disaster of the present century took place when a gas explosion destroyed the Consolidated High School at New London, Texas, with the loss of 294 lives.
Located in the heart of the oil fields, the school served the families of the oil field workers over an area extending up to fifteen miles in several directions.
The blast occurred with the suddenness characteristic of such explosions, although with some unusual features. Witnesses agreed that there was but one explosion and that it was a low rumbling noise, with none of the blast or roar that might be expected. There is evidence of a most terrific force in the great extent of devastation and loss of life that came almost instantly. Bodies were tossed 75 feet into the air, and an automobile 200 feet distant was crushed like an eggshell under a two-ton slab of concrete that had been hurled from the building. As a further evidence of the terrific force, the established point of origin indicates that the explosion had to break through an 8-in. concrete floor slab before starting on its path of destruction. Many of the children in rooms directly above this point were literally blown apart or mangled beyond recognition. There was very little of the structure left standing after the blast.
The high school was erected in 1932, with additions in 1934. Built on sloping ground, the entire building was designed in form of the letter "E." The main section was one story high on a concrete foundation forming a concealed dead air space from 3 to 6 feet high, varying with the uneven surfaces of the ground. Both the north and south wings were carried back to a height of two stories, owing to the drop in grade, the second floor in each case being a continuation of the first floor of the main section. The building was of reasonably good construction, with 4-in. brick walls backed with 8-in. non-bearing hollow tile, the loads being carried on steel I-beam columns and girders. The floor over the concealed space was an 8-in. slab of reinforced concrete supported on concrete girders, foundation walls and concrete piers. Heating was supplied by means of individual gas-fired steam radiators located in the various rooms. This method was used because of the greater expense of a central steam heating system.
A manual training shop was located on the lower floor of the north wing, containing several machines driven by individual motors, and one portable sander with a heavy cord and plug switch for a wall socket. This shop backed up against the 12-in. concrete foundation wall of the front or main section and communicated with the concealed space through a 4 x 4 ft. opening in the foundation wall, having a wooden door normally kept partly open. The shop and sander, according to evidence, played a very important part in the disaster.
It has been established beyond reasonable doubt that the explosion was due to leaking gas from a pipe or pipes under the building, and that ignition was from the arc of an electric switch in the manual training room close to the open door. No fire followed the explosion, presumably due to the small amount of combustible material.
There is no record of the total number of persons in the building at the time of the explosion, but it appears that the majority of the occupants were killed or injured, and that practically all those in the main part of the building were killed at once or were fatally injured. The final count showed that the deaths totaled 294, including 120 boys, 156 girls, 4 men teachers, 12 women teachers, 1 woman visitor and a 4-year-old boy visitor.
Those who survived were in the wings, mostly on the upper floor. There were three boys in the shop when the explosion occurred who escaped with slight injuries. They were at the far end of the room and were blown into the rear addition.
There were many reports of persons who survived by reason of the protection of desks, but it appears doubtful that there was enough time for any teacher to direct an entire class to get under their desks. The survivors who were immediately able to get out were assisted from under the wreckage in conditions varying from slight shock to broken limbs or fatal injuries. Many were pinned under the wreckage for long periods and were released only when heavy material was lifted by the use of jacks.
The court of inquiry exonerated all school officials of personal blame. It was the collective faults of average individuals, ignorant or indifferent to the need of precautionary measures, where they cannot, in their lack of knowledge, visualize a danger or hazard.
The school building was of good construction and planned for reasonable safety except for the gas piping which had been installed by one of the janitors with no apparent regard for the N.F.P.A. Good Practice Requirements, which give detailed provisions for installation and tests to avoid the danger of leaks. Furthermore, the gas was not odorized to give warning of leaks. The excessive area of concealed space under the building was poor practice for a structure of this type and occupancy, but not necessarily a structural weakness in itself. When bottled up with virtually no ventilation, however, and filled with gas pipe lines and electrical circuits, it became a serious fault.
Practically all faults of construction and installation in this building were due to lack of supervising power such as would apply in communities having proper city ordinances. It serves to focus attention on the need for state laws on standards of construction as well as approved standards for the installation of heating systems, electrical equipment, gas and oil systems, and all features affecting the welfare of the public in schools, public buildings and all other buildings where large numbers of persons congregate.
1. "School, New London, Texas, March 18, 1937", 1000 School Fires, A record of 1000 school fires and major school disasters, October, 1939, Boston, Mass., page 7-11.