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1937 New London School Explosion Survivors return to disaster site

Longview News-Journal

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EAST TEXAS, March 16, 2009 | Kate Thompson ((202)225-3035) | comments
This past weekend, Moore, Ward, Thompson and other London School alumni returned to the site of one of the worst school disasters in United States history.
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By WES FERGUSON
Ira Joe Moore climbed through a window to escape the destruction.
Mollie Ward remembers her father sifting through the rubble, worrying that his efforts to rescue trapped children might in fact be crushing them.

And Bill Thompson for years lived with the guilt that a little girl died in his place.

This past weekend, Moore, Ward, Thompson and other London School alumni returned to the site of one of the worst school disasters in United States history.

In March 1937, a natural gas explosion killed nearly 300 of their classmates and teachers. The survivors and other alumni now meet every other year to reconnect with classmates and to commemorate the tragedy.

"It's something that you never forget, and it stays vivid in your mind over the years," Moore said.

A high school junior in 1937, Moore, 87, is a retired airline pilot who lives in El Cajon, Calif.

"It's nice to be back and visit with old friends and renew acquaintances," he said. "I wanted to make at least one more of these reunions."

Ward, 83, was 10 years old when the school exploded.

"It was a sad thing," she said. "Daddy worked so long he almost had a nervous breakdown. He was using a wench to pull up the concrete blocks, and he didn't know if he was crushing somebody.

"As long as he was working, he was fine, but as soon as he came home and sat down he'd start shaking."

Over time her father got better, she said. Moore helped found the London Museum across the street from the school, and she was a longtime mayor of New London.

"I know everybody. Of course, I've been around so long," she said. "It just thrills me to death when everybody comes and hollers at me and hugs me. This is just a big reunion. It just gets people happy."

Thompson, 85, said he swapped seats with a little girl the day of the explosion. Though he was injured in the blast, he survived, and she did not.

"I lived with that guilt for a long time," he said. "It's something one has to experience before you can know what that feels like, thinking you caused her death."

In a speech worthy of a Sunday morning sermon, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert said survivors such as Thompson should feel no guilt for their part in the 1937 tragedy.

"There was a feeling in New London that maybe people had done something wrong and deserved the explosion," Gohmert said. "Everybody needs to understand that bad things do happen to good people. God did not destroy the school."

Gohmert, R-Tyler, said New London residents, nearby oilfield workers and other responders should be commended for their efforts in the face of a great disaster.

"When you look at how they responded, I don't think there has ever been a response like that in the history of our country," he said. "That kind of response says this was an extraordinary community in March of 1937."
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Tags: General