By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Lonnie Barber, janitor-driver for the New London School, watched as young children climbed aboard his bus, laughing and horseplaying. The elementary school students--released 10 minutes earlier than their junior high and high school classmates--were in particularly high spirits that springlike Thursday afternoon of March 18, 1937. The next day had been declared a holiday so students could attend the annual district scholastic and athletic competition in nearby Henderson. It was an otherwise unremarkable day, except that because the much-anticipated casting for the annual senior play had begun, only four of the 740 students had been absent, a record for the new school year.
The lanky, gray-haired Barber shifted the bus into low gear and began a slow climb up a dirt road on the outskirts of the East Texas oil-field community. It was 3:20 p.m.
As Barber reached the crest of a hill, a sudden force of air shook the bus. There was a growing, loud rumble, then the shattering echo of an explosion. Simultaneously, Barber and the children turned their attention to the source of the noise. Two dozen horror-stricken faces stared back toward their 4-year-old school building--which was no longer there. In a bizarre, catastrophic moment that was to find its way into the history of American tragedy, there was nothing left but black smoke mixing with a spiraling cloud of red clay dust and sprayed rubble where the E-shaped building had once stood.
Had Barber looked back a split second earlier, he would have seen the same grotesque scene eyewitnesses would later recall: a rumble as the ground shook, then the walls of the two-story brick building seeming to expand outward. The red tile roof was momentarily lifted into the air, then crashed back down. Natural gas, used to heat the school's 72 steam radiators, had been accumulating from an undetected leak in the building's sub-basement for days, apparently ignited when a teacher flipped the switch to start an electric sanding machine in the school workshop.
Barber hesitated only briefly, then squared himself in his driver's seat and pressed the gas pedal to the floorboard. He knew the parents of the children he was transporting would be worried about their safety. Thus, even as word of the worst tragedy involving schoolchildren in American history was being flashed around the world, Barber, his face twisted with agony, dutifully completed his hour-long route just as he'd done for years.
Only then did he hurriedly return to the school to find out if his own four children were among the survivors.
He was met by chaos. People were digging with bare, bleeding hands into the smoldering rubble in an effort to reach screaming victims trapped beneath the twisted steel beams and brick. The gruesome remains of dozens of young victims had already been removed and placed along the edge of the school yard. Those drawn to them, searching madly for their children, quickly realized that identification was going to be a difficult task. Almost immediately, speculation of the number of deaths began to climb: 400, 500, maybe more. A form of insanity swept through the town. First on the scene were parents who had escaped death themselves only because a PTA meeting they were attending had, at the last minute, been moved from the school auditorium to the gymnasium. Soon, truckloads of oil-field roughnecks, released from their jobs as soon as word of the catastrophe reached drilling sites throughout Rusk County, arrived with bulldozers, winch trucks and acetylene torches. Local Boy Scout troops were called into action. Texas Governor James Allred, upon learning of the disaster, immediately dispatched National Guard troops. Red Cross and Salvation Army workers poured into the isolated community from throughout East Texas. Radio stations in nearby Tyler and Kilgore discontinued regular programming and served as a communications network for the rescue operation.
From Dallas, 120 miles to the west, came 30 doctors, 100 nurses and 25 embalmers who, because of the magnitude of their task and the lack of facilities, were forced to perform their work on tables set up on the school grounds. Every available form of transportation--buses, automobiles, pickups--was enlisted as ambulances or hearses. Bodies were pulled from the wreckage and lined up along a fence with school principal Troy Duran assigned the task of identifying the dead before they were transported to makeshift morgues.
The thunderous blast claimed the lives of 280 students and 14 teachers. One of them was 11-year-old fifth-grader Arden Barber, the bus driver's youngest son. His three other children, including high school senior L.V. Barber, were among the nearly 100 who escaped with injuries.
"I was in the study hall, which was located in the far end of the building," L.V. Barber recalls, "and I wasn't injured, except for a few scratches. But my sister Pearl, who was sitting next to me, was hit by a part of the wall that fell and suffered a back injury. My younger brother Burton was in the shop where the explosion took place and somehow came out of it with only burns and a few cuts. As soon as I got out of the building I ran straight home to tell Mother what had happened. She'd already heard and was getting ready to go up to the school. My dad was there when we arrived, and he told us that Arden was dead but he hadn't been able to find his body.