Gone at 3:17: The Untold Story of the Worst School Disaster in American History
David M Brown, Michael Wereschagin
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.
Firefighters struggled for weeks to control the monstrous blaze. Ash and soot littered the air and settled on the rooftops and lawns. They extinguished the fire, but reminders of its ferocity lingered day and night in the gas-burning flares. 5 Pleasant Hill The morning light shone like bronze mist on hillsides and tops of pines. White, yellow, and pink wildflowers stirred in sandy beds along the roadside as the yellow school buses zoomed past. A haze lingered in the air just above the
plains. He had lost his fortune for the last time and was biding his time as old age transformed him, day by day, into a ghost of his former self. But his legacy was solid. He would always be Dad Joiner—a title conferred not as a tender expression a son uses for his flather (Joiner’s own son was a plaintiff in one of several hundred lawsuits filed against the old man claiming breach of contracts) but in a broader sense: he flathered the Black Giant. The glory of that day belonged to him as long
walk off the job, especially when so many other men with hungry families were drooling for employment in the oil fields. Even so, the AP in Dallas sent Felix McKnight to East Texas to check out the rumors. McKnight spent several days in late February and early March 1937 talking with oil-field workers and their families as well as the owners and managers of the oil companies and gasoline refineries driving the boom. The young South Texas native was impressed with the beauty of East Texas, the
fountain pen and copied down a homework assignment Miss Wright had put on the blackboard. Kids were talking in soft voices because the teacher said they could visit quietly in the last flew minutes before the bell. Bill Thompson, Preston noticed, was making eyes at Billie Sue Hall. Joe Bo, also eleven, was gazing out the window. He was the class cutup and got paddled often, but everybody, including the teachers, liked him and couldn’t hold back the laughs when Joe Bo’s comedic charm hit high
Hudson decided to rig a makeshift broadcast station. Somebody needed to send a plea for emergency medical supplies, doctors, and nurses. He started searching for a live telephone wire among the lines that had been blown away from the building. With any luck, he had enough equipment in his truck to patch together a mobile transmission center. Hudson rushed to finish the task before dark. Henry McLemore had zoomed to the top of his profession with such alacrity that it seemed appropriate he loved