Gone at 3:17: The Untold Story of the Worst School Disaster in American History

Gone at 3:17: The Untold Story of the Worst School Disaster in American History

David M Brown, Michael Wereschagin

Language: English

Pages: 317


Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

At 3:17 p.m. on March 18, 1937, a natural gas leak beneath the London Junior-Senior High School in the oil boomtown of New London, Texas, created a lethal mixture of gas and oxygen in the school’s basement. The odorless, colorless gas went undetected until the flip of an electrical switch triggered a colossal blast. The two-story school, one of the nation’s most modern, disintegrated, burying everyone under a vast pile of rubble and debris. More than 300 students and teachers were killed, and hundreds more were injured.

As the seventy-fifth anniversary of the catastrophe approaches, it remains the deadliest school disaster in U.S. history. Few, however, know of this historic tragedy, and no book, until now, has chronicled the explosion, its cause, its victims, and the aftermath.

Gone at 3:17 is a true story of what can happen when school officials make bad decisions. To save money on heating the school building, the trustees had authorized workers to tap into a pipeline carrying “waste” natural gas produced by a gasoline refinery. The explosion led to laws that now require gas companies to add the familiar pungent odor. The knowledge that the tragedy could have been prevented added immeasurably to the heartbreak experienced by the survivors and the victims’ families. The town would never be the same.

Using interviews, testimony from survivors, and archival newspaper files, Gone at 3:17 puts readers inside the shop class to witness the spark that ignited the gas. Many of those interviewed during twenty years of research are no longer living, but their acts of heroism and stories of survival live on in this meticulously documented and extensively illustrated book.

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major wire services that provided real-time accounts of the New London school explosion and its aftermath. Although journalists at the scene made a flew glaring mistakes, the news coverage as a whole was correct, insightful, and vivid. This book could not have been written with as much historically accurate detail without those sources, including the following: Henderson Daily News, Overton Press, Kilgore Daily News, Kilgore Herald, Tyler Courier-Times, Tyler Morning Telegraph, Rusk County News,

Stroud, Helen, 78 Tate, Willie, 7, 100 Taylor, Louise, 55, 67–68, 73 Terrell, Texas, 38, 123 Texas Company (Texaco), 17, 243 Texas Highway Patrol, 119, 175, 179, 218 Texas Inspection Bureau, 218 Texas Rangers, 184, 218–19 Texas Revolution, 27 Thompson, Alvin, 41–44, 53–54, 116, 136, 140–41, 149 Thompson, Bill, 1, 10, 40–44, 52, 70, 96–97, 102, 105, 127, 140, 204, 235, 246, 251–53 Thompson, Bonnie, 41–44, 140 Thompson, Dorothy, 93 Thompson, Lanelle, 136 Thompson, Laverne, 149

Bradford No. 3 first tapped the field that soon became known as the Black Giant. The Thompson family and several thousand other local residents went to the well site on the morning Joiner anticipated he would strike oil. Bill was six. His flather drove their car across a wide, bumpy field to the drilling rig. Although it was early autumn, the land remained white with unpicked cotton. The farmer figured on quick riches from oil and just left the crop in the field. He and the landowners around him

Rhodes said. “The doctors gave him authority to go ahead as their representative or we would not have a hospital today.”1 An artful and entertaining speaker, McDonald typically opened with an anecdote. The physician kept a selection in his repertoire, drawn from personal experience and stories he’d heard working closely with other doctors in Tyler. He spoke frankly and with a sense of self-deprecation, tossing in splashes of local color and an occasional bawdy wrinkle. McDonald referred to the

the debris. Miss Wright broke away some of the plaster wall that pinned H. G. to his desk, and she threw out broken pieces as fast as she could. Within a minute or so, she had tossed out enough for H. G. to wriggle his body as Wright tugged him from beneath his armpits. The rubble gave him up, dislodged him into the arms of the teacher. H. G. and Miss Wright climbed up out of the hole. He felt an amazing sense of freedom and litheness, in spite of a pounding headache. Blood matted his hair, and

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