Why Natural Gas Stinks: New London, Texas, School Explosion of 1937

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Have you ever wondered why natural gas smells like rotten eggs? A tragic Texas event occurred in March 1937 which would change the scent property of this utility forever. Many lives have now been saved since the school explosion in New London, Texas, which claimed the lives of an estimated 295 students and teachers. The New London school explosion is remembered as the third deadliest disaster in the history of Texas.

Several factors contributed to the destruction, including a foundation on sloping ground which led to a large air space being enclosed beneath the structure, the decision to install gas heaters instead of the original plans for a boiler and steam distribution system, a direct gas tap installed from a gasoline company, and the then-undetectable smell of natural gas. Fortunately, not all of the student population was in the building at the time. First through fourth grade students had been let out early, as the next day was a school holiday to participate in a neighboring town’s scholastic and athletic competition.

March 18

Facebook/ Jeff Modzelewski

Although students had complained of headaches, the cause was not investigated. The direct tap had been leaking gas which then accumulated inside the enclosed crawlspace running the length of the building. At 3:17 p.m., an instructor turned on an electric sander, whose switch is believed to have sparked and ignited the gas-air mixture. The resulting explosion was heard for miles around, in addition to the sounds of the roof crashing back down on the building and the collapse of the main wing. Approximately 500 students and 40 teachers were in the building at the time.

Due to a nearby PTA meeting, parents and then area residents began digging immediately. Oil field workers were released from their jobs and brought cutting torches and heavy equipment to clear the concrete and steel. Soon help from all over the state arrived; by working through rain and night, the entire site was cleared in 17 hours. Since not all of the buildings on campus were destroyed, makeshift classrooms were created and classes resumed ten days later. A new school was completed two years later, behind the original building. Today, the town of New London is home to a museum and a memorial to commemorate the events of March 18, 1937.

Help across the state

Facebook/Donna Smith

The lasting effects of this event are felt today. The Texas Legislature began mandating within weeks of the explosion that thiols be added to natural gas; its strong odor would make leaks detectable more quickly. The practice quickly spread worldwide. In addition, the Texas Legislature met in emergency session. They enacted the Engineering Registration Act (now the Texas Engineering Practice Act), and the government began regulating who could claim the title of engineer.