Propane doesn’t smell. It’s odorless in its natural state. But if there is a leak, you smell a nasty odor.
Ever wonder why? It wasn’t always that way. What caused the changed?
It would have been fortuitous if this had been done from the start as more and more buildings began to use propane and gas for heating. But no one thought of doing it until they realized they had to.
Lessons learned that save lives later, Blood Lessons, often come at high cost.
On March 18, 1937, a gas leak was sparked, causing an explosion that killed approximately 293 students and teachers at the New London School in New London, Texas. It is still the deadliest school disaster in U.S. History.
1930: Oil discovered in Rusk County
1932: New London Schoolhouse built; the first in Texas to have a football stadium with electric lights. The school board overrules the architect’s recommendation for steam heat, instead installing gas heaters.
1937: Early in the year, the school cancels their natural gas contract and instead taps directly into residue lines from oil derricks.
18 March 1937: Gas that had been leaking in the crawl space under the school explodes.
The Cascading Events
The school board overrode the architect’s plan for heating the school.
The original plan, as drawn up by the architect, called for the school to be heated by a boiler and a steam system. But the school board overrode that and insisted on a gas system in order to save money.
The New London Schoolhouse was located in Rusk County and despite the rest of the country being bogged down in the Great Depression, it was one of the richest areas in the country. Oil fueled the local economy. There were 11 derricks located on school grounds. The school was relatively new, having been built in 1932.
Despite a large amount of money spent on the construction, the decision was made to heat the school with 72 gas heaters, rather than the planned centralized boiler and steam system. The architect warned them that the building wasn’t designed to vent gas fumes, but they proceeded anyway.
Experts are just that.
There are actually two problems here wrapped in one. First, is ignoring the original plans for the building. A heating system is integral to such plans and in this case, the building had been designed for steam heat. Switching to multiple gas heaters ignored the basic construction of the building. And ignoring the warning that the building wasn’t designed to vent gas fumes was piled on top of that.
The school was built on a slope so there was a large dead space underneath it, stretching the entire length of the building.
Add this to cascade one and you begin to see a pattern. Dead space is just that: unused, and often ignored.
The term ‘dead space’ is a misnomer. It’s still part of the building. Often, it’s places we don’t look and inspect that problems can build up over time. Extra effort must be made to periodically inspect ‘dead space’ in whatever form it takes. Out of sight, out of mind, is a precursor for disaster.
Eventually, school officials canceled the natural gas contract and tapped directly into a residue line from the oilfields.
This was a relatively common thing in the area as propane was considered waste and usually burned off. A problem with this was that the quality of this gas was of varying quality. Also, they had to run a new line into the gas company’s residue line.
This move saved the school $300 a month. While this might seem overly cheap, remember the environment in the country at the time: the Great Depression was ongoing and the mindset was one of frugality.
Cost cutting can be one of the most dangerous things in terms of safety.
It’s ironic that one of the richest school districts in the country chose to cut costs this way. But there are two factors playing into this beyond simply saving money.
First, these were oil people. The school’s football team was the Wildcats, for ‘wildcatter’. Almost everyone there was associated with the oil business in one-way or the other.
The second was that the natural gas residue was there for the taking. One can easily imagine the mindset of a school official seeing the bill they were paying for something that ran right by the school and was burned off and wasted and could be tapped into for free.
The gas company knew the school, and others, were tapping into the residue lines, but turned a blind eye to it.
After all, many of the people working for the company had children at the school.
After the explosion, during the rescue operations, they found a blackboard with a teacher’s note for the day chalked on it: “Oil and natural gas are East Texas’ greatest mineral blessings. Without them this school would not be here and none of us would be here learning our lessons.”
Rules exist for a reason.
The residue gas was of questionable quality and was normally burned off. To allow waste product to be used in the school violated protocol and was a shortcut.
Like cost cutting, shortcuts tend to have negative results.
Additionally, because there was no meter on the gas the school was tapping into, no one could tell if the reading was abnormal. Meter readings are a backup way to tell if there is a leak in the system; if the reading is abnormally large, then there is a problem.
None of the people involved in these decisions and actions had bad intentions. In fact, just the opposite. They were trying to do what they thought was the best course of action.
The connection to the residue gas line was faulty.
Although no one knows exactly how, since it was destroyed, the line had to have developed a leak. Because of the dead space underneath the length of the school, and the fact it wasn’t designed to vent fumes, that large area filled with gas.
Cascade events do just that: they cascade.
This was a mechanical failure. They happen. But this failure in conjunction with gas instead of steam heat, dead space, no venting, no meter, and events were now ripe for disaster.
Students had been complaining about headaches and burning eyes for days.
Since the gas was odorless, the only symptoms were these headaches and burning eyes. It does seem a bit odd that in a community where many people worked in the gas industry, no one took these complaints for what they were.
There were reports that students were in classrooms with the windows open and their jackets on. It’s obvious then that people were aware there was something wrong, but with 72 separate heating units, it would have been easy to ascribe it as a localized problem.
Paying attention to the details and then taking action.
In retrospect, even with everything else that went wrong, the physical symptoms were a glaring warning. One of the issues with cascade events is focus. To not just notice a problem, but to focus on it and then not assume it’s just going to go away.
I’ve been guilty of this many times: noticing something isn’t quite right, but having what I call a self-correcting mindset. This is where I shrug off a physical symptom or an anomaly in my environment and just assume it will get better or isn’t important.
Inevitably, it doesn’t without some action being taken.
Final Event: DISASTER
A few minutes prior to school being let out, at 3:17 PM, a teacher turned on an electric sander. This caused a spark that sent an arc into the enclosed space where the gas had been building up.
Witnesses say it appeared that the entire building seemed to lift up off the ground and then slam back down. People over four miles away heard the explosion and it was felt for dozens of miles. As an indicator of the force of the explosion, a two-ton slab of concrete was thrown 200 feet away from the building.
Fortunately, the lower grades had already been dismissed for the day. The high school was still in session with about 800 students, but many were not in the building as they were preparing for a sporting event. The exact death toll was never fixed, but is roughly around 300.
Walter Cronkite, on one of his first assignments working for United Press in Dallas, rushed to the school. What he saw caused him to make the quote at the beginning of this section years later, even after covering wars and other disasters: “I did nothing in my studies nor in my life to prepare me for a story of the magnitude of that New London tragedy, nor has any story since that awful day equaled it.”
Classes were resumed within a few weeks of the tragedy. The school was rebuilt within two years; this time with steam heat. The loss was so devastating that those who lived there hardly ever mentioned it again. “If you don’t talk about it, maybe it’s going to go away. Of course, we know it doesn’t.” (Miles Toler, VOA News, http://goo.gl/ITfQ2l). There is a museum now, opened in 1998. It contains telegrams of sympathy, one even from Adolf Hitler; an indication of how far the repercussions of this event spread.
There was one major result of this horrific tragedy, which has undoubtedly saved many lives since the event. Less than two months afterward, the Texas Legislature passed a law which required refineries to add a smell to natural gas. Roughly 1.5 pounds of ethyl-mercaptan per 10,000 gallons of propane is the norm. Thus, since propane is heavier than air, any leak will have a lingering odor that is unmistakable.
However, regarding the other cascade events, nothing much was done. The Court of Inquiry noted the design flaw, the swapping out of steam for the gas heaters, the switch to the residue line, the lack of action on the student complaints of headaches and burning eyes, but ultimately held no one accountable. Some families filed lawsuits against the school district, but the cases were dismissed and never came to trial. No individual was ever held liable and no fine was levied.
The official report said that school officials were “average individuals, ignorant or indifferent to the need for precautionary measures, where they cannot, in their lack of knowledge, visualize a danger or a hazard.” (Court of Inquiry, 1937.)
There can hardly be a better way to sum up the purpose of this book than to correct this line.
This tragedy was the result of well-intentioned people making a mistake. The mistake was compounded by cascade events, as all disasters are.
The most significant problem was never focusing on some of the cascade events, particularly the physical complaints of the students and teachers. Disasters often signal that they are pending in ways we can literally feel, but if we don’t focus on those feelings, we don’t appreciate the warning.
This is excerpted from The Green Beret Guide to Seven Great Disasters I.
A free slideshow on this topic and many others about interesting history, survival, writing and other topics is on my web site at www.bobmayer.com/workshops