Fran Vanassen has many memories of her lifetime but there are some she would rather not remember. Fran was just 11-years-old in New London, Texas on the now famous date of March 18, 1937 when the London School blew up from a natural gas leak. Killing more than 295 students and teachers, Fran still can't believe she escaped with minor scratches after somehow crawling out of the rubble.
Fran thinks about the explosion and the tragedy nearly every day and has different memories that have come to surface years later.
As March 18, 2014 approaches, just like every year, she tries not to think about her experiences but they are never far away.
She remembers all of the white ash that covered everything when the two story building blew up.
The London School board had canceled their natural gas contract and a tap was installed into Parade Gasoline Company's residue gas line in order to save money. The untreated natural gas was both odorless and colorless so leaks were not detected although many had complained of headaches for some time. One day, when many of the children had been dismissed to go to a neighboring towns interscholastic athletic meet, a teacher turned on an electric sander down in the basement, which caused a spark that ignited the gas and caused the explosion.
The walls of the school bulged with the roof lifting off the building, crashing back down with the main wing of the structure collapsing.
Fran distinctly remembers thinking of her father who would be coming to pick her up after school and would be terrified if he could not find her. He was one of the many parents who were digging students and teachers out of the rubble, no doubt keeping an eye out for his own little girl.
"If I think about it too much, I get very nervous and cry," Fran stated. She still wonders how she got out and can actually see herself standing in the rubble wondering how she escaped major injury. Fran was one of just 130 people who escaped serious injury out of the more than 600 who were still there.
The explosion was so loud, men working in nearby oil fields arrived immediately bringing cutting torches and heavy equipment to clear the concrete and steel.
The town did not go without a school for long as stick buildings were quickly constructed and a nearby elementary school was temporarily used by crowding children into classrooms.
Fran has been back to the site twice and has visited the museum which is located at the same location as the rebuilt school and the original school.
A book by David M. Brown and Michael Woreschagin titled, "Gone at 3:17, The Untold Story of the Worst School Disaster in American History," is a well written book depicting the days leading up to the disaster along with memories of many of the students.
Within weeks of the explosion, the Texas Legislature began mandating that thiols (mercaptans) be added to natural gas, which means the strong odor cannot go unnoticed. This practice quickly spread worldwide.
A documentary, called, "When Even Angels Wept," by East Texas native Kristin Beauchamp was released in 2009 and gives a first-hand account of the school disaster.
The 75th anniversary of the explosion was commemorated in March 2012 when survivors and family members gathered at the rebuilt school.
The New London school explosion was the first national story that 20-year-old Walter Cronkite covered in his long, successful career.
One vivid memory that Fran commented on was the fact that a young mother had told her toddler son to wait in the car while she ran inside the school just before after 3 p.m., before the explosion. Luckily, the little boy decided to exit the car to chase a butterfly because the car was smashed from flying debris and he would have been killed if not for a butterfly flying by at the right moment.