One of the worst school disasters in American history occurred 75 years ago, when an explosion killed hundreds of students at a school in East Texas. It was an event that etched itself into the memory of Kenneth Honeycutt, now 83.
"It was an explosion in the school building that led to the death of 300 students and teachers," he says. "It was caused by an accumulation of gas throughout the school building."
Honeycutt grew up near the oil fields of New London, Texas. And as he recalled during a visit to StoryCorps with his wife, Gaye, he was very close to the school when calamity struck. Honeycutt was just 8 at the time — a third-grader.
"My younger brother, Baxter, and I were playing outside, and there was the loudest explosion that you can imagine," he says.
"I turned — and it looked as if the entire back wall of the school was slowly falling over."
The explosion came just after 3 p.m., moments before the final bell that would have dismissed students for the day. The catastrophe became known as the New London School Explosion of 1937. Among the reporters sent to cover the story was a young Walter Cronkite.
In those days, New London was at the center of the Texas oil boom. And the town had spent some of its newfound wealth to build a large school, where students in grades five-11 attended classes.
"I had a lot of relatives going to school then," Honeycutt says. "My cousin Forrest was in the sixth grade; my Aunt Elson in the 10th grade. Forrest was killed. My Aunt Elson had back injuries, but the major effect on her was emotional. She lived a very anxiety-filled life from then on."
"This event seared my brain for life. I can remember almost every detail of it."
The March 18 explosion was reportedly caused when pockets of natural gas that had leaked from the school's heating system were suddenly ignited by a spark. Investigators attributed the gas's presence to the then-common practice of tapping into oil companies' gas lines. The odorless gas had collected inside the school without anyone's realizing it.
"I had led a life of crime up to that point. I had snitched a few things from a grocery store across from us," Honeycutt says. "And I felt that God had punished me, by causing this school to blow up. And that remained something that I truly believed, almost until I was an adult. But the effect, I still feel today."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Nadia Reiman and Katie Simon.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And it is Friday morning, which is when we hear from StoryCorps. More than 80,000 Americans have recorded a StoryCorps interview. And through their voices we often hear about forgotten events in this country's history.
For example, the story we'll hear about next. Kenneth Honeycutt grew up in New London, Texas. At StoryCorps he looked back 75 years to an explosion in a school building there. It was caused by a gas leak and claimed the lives of nearly 300 students and teachers.
KENNETH HONEYCUTT: I was very close to the building when it happened. I was eight and in the third grade. My younger brother, Baxter, and I were playing outside, and there was the loudest explosion that you can imagine.
It happened at 3:10 in the afternoon, about 20 minutes before school would have been dismissed. As a matter of fact, all of the school buses were already lined up to take the kids home.
I had a lot of relatives going to school then. My cousin Forrest was in the sixth grade, my Aunt Elson in the 10th grade. Forrest was killed. My Aunt Elson had back injuries, but the major effect on her was emotional. She lived a very anxiety-filled life from then on.
This event seared my brain for life. I can remember almost every detail of it.
And I had led a life of crime up to that point. I had snitched a few things from a grocery store across from us. And I felt that God had punished me by causing this school to blow up. And that remained something that I truly believed, almost until I was an adult. But the effect I still feel today.
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INSKEEP: Kenneth Honeycutt, recalling the New London School explosion of 1937. He told that story to his wife Gaye at StoryCorps in Knoxville, Tennessee. Their interview will be archived with all the others at the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress. And you can learn more about what Kenneth witnessed at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.