I followed Mr. Bill Webb to his apartment with the promise of seeing a picture of him as a child on a go-cart. I imagined a gas powered, four-wheeled vehicle but soon discovered I had misheard him. He didn’t say “go-cart,” he had said, “goat cart!” We both chuckled at the mix up and settled in the living room to continue our conversation. A conversation that would touch my heart with a gut-wrenching story of loss and devastation.
He began by telling me how his father sought to care for his growing family in the early stages of family life. At one point, his father, a hard worker and family man, gathered up his wife and young daughter, Mary Jo, to make a living in the oil field out west. The little family of three carried with them a tent that would be their temporary home until enough money was made to put a proper roof over their heads. Eventually, the family would grow to include Billy, known today as Bill. “I was born in that tent!” he said with a reminiscent laugh, “Mary Jo always teased me about it,” shared Webb. It wasn’t until the industry began to boom in East Texas, where the Webb's were originally from, that they were able to return to the area, settling in a growing oil town, New London.
In the mid-30’s the rest of the country was suffering from the Great Depression, however, the little town of New London had remained resilient during the economic downturn due to a discovery of oil in Rusk County which made the New London school district one of the richest in the nation with fifteen oil wells on district property. The area was rapidly growing with young families, therefore, the school district invested one million dollars in constructing new buildings that would be considered state-of-the-art in 1932. In fact, New London was the first school to have electric lights for their football stadium, an innovative addition.
The school board continued to pursue innovation with the construction of the school buildings, opting to override the original architect’s plans which called for a boiler and steam distribution system, placing 72 gas heaters throughout the building instead. Later, in 1937, the school board pursued an idea that was gaining popularity when they cancelled their contract with the natural gas company. Instead, they utilized a cost saving approach that was popular in the area, piping “raw” or “wet” gas into the system to heat the buildings at a fraction of the cost of refined gas. This waste product was largely unregulated at the time. One of the most damning traits of natural gas during those days was that it was odorless and colorless, which meant a gas leak could go completely undetected. Even with students complaining of headaches leading up to the explosion, the leak was not discovered until it was too late.
“There were two buildings, one for fifth grade through high school and another for first through fourth grade,” Webb recalled. “Our building [first through fourth grade] got out earlier and I had begun to walk home when it happened. I remember white paper floating in the air moments after the explosion. I didn’t hardly know what to do or what to think.”
Webb’s mother was also at the school that day along with most of the mothers in town for a meeting of the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA). Due to a school play, the meeting had been moved to another location at the last minute. For this reason, Webb shared that his mother survived the blast along with so many other mothers. Mary Jo, however, was in the play that was practicing in the exploded building next door and did not survive. Roughly 500 students and 40 teachers were in the building at the time of the explosion.
Parents attending the PTA meeting were among the first responders to the scene who began to push through the rubble with their bare hands searching for survivors. The group of parents were soon joined by area residents who had heard the boom, and later by roughnecks from the oil fields who brought cutting torches and equipment to sort through fallen structure.
The explosion claimed an estimated 294 lives that day, one being twelve-year-old Mary Jo Webb. Only ten days later, the school converted the gymnasium to classrooms with multiple tents to separate the spaces so students could finish out the school year. Only 30 surviving seniors graduated from New London that year. The Webb family now comprising of Bill, his mother, and father, moved away from New London to start anew.
“You never get over it,” he said. “I think of her every day. My mother never got over it,” he recalled. “How do you get over something like that? My dad did the best he could with his grief, he mostly stayed busy and worked to cope.”
Once it was time for Bill to choose his own career path, he chose the oil industry. Intrigued, I asked Webb, “Why do you think you chose that field? Wasn’t it awfully personal?” He quipped back instantly, “Oh yes! It was very personal to me. I was committed to safety, as you might imagine,” he said. “No one should ever have to go through what we went through that day.”
He went on to explain that the New London Explosion is the reason gas has a strong odor today, saying, “They changed the laws after that and began adding an odorant to prevent things like this ever happening again.”
March 18th of this year marked 86 years since this devastating day in East Texas. Webb’s eyes still fill with tears as though it was just yesterday. I asked him about his tears and he explained that he often grieves for all that could have been for Mary Jo. A blushing bride? A loving mother? A doting aunt to his children? He will never know, which is why March 18th will forever be a day of remembrance for all that could have been.