New London docent recalls blast, tragedy
BY FAITH HARPER
For 13 years, 72-year-old John Davidson has been telling the stories of the victims and heroines of one of the largest school tragedies ever recorded.
At 3:17 p.m. on March 18, 1937, the London School in Rusk County suddenly and violently exploded due to a natural gas leak that filled a crawl space with odorless gas. A sander in a shop classroom was turned on, igniting the fumes and imploding the building with school children inside.
Davidson, the London Museum's head docent, said the school kept poor records and did not have a solid set of enrollment numbers, and since many of the families relocated to New London to work in the booming oil industry, their children's bodies were often sent to burial plots in far away communities and states. Although, he said there was an estimated 500 in the building when tragedy struck.
Two hundred and ninety three bodies of teachers, children and visitors were accounted for, many of them in pieces.
Mother Frances Hospital opened a day early to take the wounded and the bodies of the perished were strewn throughout East Texas. Davidson said some children were not identified by their faces but rather the clothing they were wearing. One little girl was identified by the color of her toe polish.
Davidson's 14-year-old sister Ardyth never came home from school that day. A picture of her with her softball team rests on the museum's walls. He said it was taken a mere two hours before the explosion. The team was slated to go to a tournament in Henderson but never made it.
Davidson was born three years after the tragedy, but he said the story of his sister's life lives on.
"I sat out here for hours talking to her friends (and) learning about her ..." Davidson said. "I'm 72-years-old. Before long I'm going to be able to sit down and talk to her in person. Hopefully I get there. I know she is there."
Story after story is chronicled on the walls of the museum.
A peach basket that was used to pick up body parts rests in the museum. Davidson said a man from Arkansas bought a truck load of baskets from a factory in Jacksonville and gave them to rescue workers.
The school project of a little girl sits among other memorabilia. The plate on the wall states her mother sent her to school, but only her handwork came home.
Shards of clothing are all that remain of a third grader who went back inside to grab his coat and never made it out.
The pain of the tragedy was deep and widespread.
Davidson said it was never talked about, and it took 40 years before a reunion was held.
But, the community went through the motions and began picking up the pieces.
Classes continued and construction started on a new school, he said. It was completed in a year and the class of 1938 held its ceremony in the new school, which looked remarkably like the one lost.
Davidson said the monument that sits in front of the school was constructed a few years later and was paid through donations of nickels and dimes sent in from school across the world.
But among the sad tales, a few happy ones remain -- stories of love and courage.
The youngest survivor, 9-year-old Carolyn Jones addressed the Texas Legislature on March 22, 1937 and following her brave speech, a bill was introduced in the U.S. Congress to put a man made odor into natural gas, so it could be detected. Davison said the woman is still alive and living in Idaho.
A man who lost his leg in the explosion married the nurse that brought him back to health at Trinity Mother Frances Hospital.
But after 76 years, the people who bore witness to the tragic day and the events that followed are slowly becoming rare.
Davidson said at the reunion this past weekend less than a dozen stood up as survivors. He said many likely have health problems or live too far away to attend, but their stories are slowly dissolving into history.