I Alone have Escaped

The survivors of the New London School Disaster understand trauma on a biblical scale and what it takes to find healing. Consequently, the book of Job would hold special meaning for them. First, Job hears dreadful news as four messengers appear one by one. Marauders had attacked, robbed him of livestock, and murdered his servants. Natural disasters had slain all present. Not only Job, but also the messengers have survived horrible ordeals. Imagine the anguish of delivering this message: “…Your sons and your daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, and behold, a great wind came … and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people and they died, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” Job 1:18-19 (NASB) In other words, we’re also reading an ancient account of survivor’s guilt. Survivors of the New London tragedy would understand.

Sudden calamity with survivors and victims

On March 18, 1937, the wealthiest and second-largest rural school in the world exploded. This event stands as the worst school disaster in American history.  At 3:17 p.m., 64,000 cubic feet of natural gas that had collected in a crawlspace was ignited by a spark from a defective belt sander and 294 (confirmed) perished. On that day in New London, the greatest casualties were found in the fifth and sixth grades with sixty-seven and eighty-seven casualties respectively. Football, basketball, and track and field teams, and the school band experienced heavy losses. In addition, an unknown number of deaths went unreported, because the blast incinerated school records. Furthermore, many families simply retrieved their children’s remains and headed for distant hometowns without notice.

Immediate response

The enormous community response is a matter of record. Indeed, people of all walks of life converged on the spot and began the grim process of rescue, recovery, and debris removal, first by hand and then by heavy equipment from local oil and lumber industries. The rubble was cleared in seventeen hours.

Sharing and healing

For decades, many parents and surviving children could not speak of this tragedy and mutely bore heavy grief alone. So much so, forty years passed before survivors gathered for a first reunion. There they found a venue for sharing memories and finding solace.  In 1992, eyewitness, Molly Ward, proposed opening a museum to tell the story of the disaster and to honor the memory of those who had died and those who had survived.

A top-flight museum

Today, a top-flight museum occupies a historic building that had housed a drug store, the Post Office, City Hall, and the local water department. The museum graphics and presentation would not be out-of-place at a national or state park. They are that fine and that professional. Notably, the exhibits there stand as a time-capsule of the Great Depression and World War II. The museum presents period artifacts of classrooms, band and athletic uniforms, children’s clothing, toys, and items from a Tyler hospital that treated victims. Historic photographs and telegrams of condolence from Eleanor Roosevelt and Adolph Hitler appear in glass cases. Visitors learn of the law mandating the foul gas odorant that protects us all. Indeed, this protection is in place because of this event.

Remembering and honoring

The all-volunteer staff continues to “collect, catalog, and preserve items pertaining to the old school and the explosion as well as the early community.” For example, they continue to collect information on previously unrecorded casualties and the fate of their families. A cadre of volunteer docents stand ready to share this bit of history. The New London School Disaster Facebook page regularly reports visits by local students and even employees of the oil and gas industry, travelers and history buffs. Additionally, on each victim’s birthday, the child, teacher, or visitor’s history and photos are posted on Facebook.

Celebrating life

In addition, the Museum also provides a place to enjoy and celebrate today. Locals and visitors alike can order food and treats from the on-site café and historic soda fountain. In fact, remaining survivors meet and fellowship there.

Finally, at the end of Job’s account, we find “Then all his brothers and all his sisters and all who had known him before came to him, and they ate bread with him in his house; and they consoled him and comforted him.” (Job 42:11) I expect Job’s messengers were among these, and they also found hope, consolation, and comfort. In the same way, the community of New London has shown the wisdom of together navigating tragedy by validating loss and affirming the value of both victim and survivor; to celebrate fellowship of generations, new and old.

My novel A Thing of Beauty tells the story of three generations who come to find the same wisdom.

What lessons or ideas can other communities draw from New London’s museum?

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