Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Julie's Journal : Gone at 3:17

Wow.  Living my entire life in East Texas, I had of course heard about the New London school explosion, the worst school disaster in American history.  I knew that natural gas had built up in the basement of the school, and that the resulting explosion is the reason that gas is now injected with the sulphuric rotten egg smell that we are all familiar with.  That was about the extent of my knowledge about the explosion.

Gone at 3:17 brings to life the real people who lived through the explosion and it's aftermath.  Gone begins with the story of the discovery of oil in Rusk county in 1930.  That discovery resulted in a boom that brought thousands of people to the area.  Kilgore, Henderson, and other small towns in the area became big towns overnight.  New London became rich with oil money and was able to build a new state of the art school in 1934 - a school that would be blown to bits in 1937 on March 18th, at 3:17 p.m., when a teacher flipped a switch, which ignited a spark and set off the explosion.

The first chapter of the book is titled 3:16 and is heartrending.  It details the tiny decisions made by people that day that determined whether they lived or died.  Bill Thompson traded seats with a girl in his class during the last few minutes of a class period.  He lived, she did not, and he lived with the guilt of trading places with her for the rest of his life.  Two girls had been pulled out of class to do some extra studying for a contest that was taking place the next day, and they survived when most of their classmates did not.  Another student survived because he was taking out the trash for his teacher.  Yet another had left his band uniform at home and was given permission to go get it because of a band contest that was happening just after school.  Perry Cox had tried to skip school, but his father caught him, paddled him, and sent him to school.  Mr. Cox never got over his son's death.

The chapter detailing the actual explosion is hard to read, but reading about the aftermath was even more difficult.  As soon as the explosion occurred, people from miles around began heading toward the school.  Men and women began digging through the rubble, pulling out survivors and victims.  Many parents found their own children in the debris.  More and more victims were pulled from the site and were taken to several towns in the area as both hospitals and morgues were filling up.  Parents made the rounds of all the places where kids were taken, hoping to identify their children.  Mother Francis hospital in Tyler was slated for its grand opening on Friday, the 19th, but opened a day early to receive victims.  Reporters, including a very young Walter Cronkite, showed up hoping for a scoop, and instead found themselves pitching in.  Many would say it was the worse scene they ever reported on, including those who reported later on WWII.  The total death toll remains uncertain, but is somewhere between 300 and 350.

Monument at the site of the explosion.

Gone at 3:17 is a very difficult book to read, but also an important one.  So many of the safety measures that are in place today in our lives were precipitated by unfathomable tragedy.  The oil boom of the early 30's brought wealth and prosperity to many people during the Great Depression, but countless lives were lost in the process.  It is important to remember the sacrifices of those who have gone before us.  So many of the luxuries and technologies that we enjoy today were purchased with the lives of those who worked to bring them to existence.

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