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The Official Publication of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas

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Issue No. 92
April 2012

Motion Picture to Chronicle London School Explosion

August 2005

Some have called it “The Day a Generation Died.”

To Mollie Ward, now mayor of New London, it was the day she lost her best friend, Geneva.

“It’s something you’ll never forget,” Ward said. “It’s something that you’ll never talk about for years and years.”

The disaster that took Geneva Jolly killed some 300 students and teachers when on March 18, 1937, at 3:17 p.m. the London School, housing grades one through 11, exploded with barbaric force lifting the building off its foundation only to have it come crashing down on top of 500 students and 40 teachers. Some were buried. Others were injured or dismembered. Hundreds were killed in an instant.

Investigators would later learn that a spark, generated when a shop teacher plugged in a sander, ignited a mixture of unscented natural gas and air in the school’s basement. The mixture, initiated by a gas leak, had spread into a nearly closed space beneath the school, approximately 253 feet long and 56 feet wide. When the mixture ignited, the school was lifted into the air.

For years, no one wanted to talk about it – the pain was simply too great. However, as survivors continue to age, there are those who want to tell the story.

“We’ve stayed silent too long,” said Ward, who established the London Museum in New London in memory of the tragedy (see story, page ?). “These children and teachers who lost their lives need to be remembered.”

And they will be.

London Texas

Mollie Ward was on hand when Mark Maine, chairman and CEO of Angelic Entertainment, of San Diego, announced in June that his company would produce a film based on the explosion. The movie, titled London Texas, will be filmed in Henderson, the county seat of Rusk County.

“It just thrills me,” said Ward, who once feared that this moment in history would be forgotten.

“It’s a story that needs to be told,” said Rusk County Judge Sandra Hodges. Many people do not realize that because of this tragedy, the law now requires that an odor be added to natural gas for easier detection.

Hodges was approached by Maine, who was drawn to the county seat as a filming site because of the town’s appearance.

“It still looks like the 1930s,” said Maine, who has yet to announce a production date or movie budget. Production-wise, it will be relatively easy to re-create the surroundings of the original era, he said.

Maine hopes to soon purchase a building in Henderson to house production offices, to be opened around September.

The film, written by Ronald Holloman, was sold to Angelic Entertainment with the stipulation that the movie be produced in East Texas.

“I think it will be a real boom to the county to have it here,” Hodges said.

The benefits to Rusk County are multifold, Maine said. There are times when 2,500 people will be on location paying for housing, food and supplies. However, along with the economic benefits, the film will actually create a new industry in the area.

“We’ll be leaving the resemblance of an infrastructure here for film and television,” Maine said. Angelic will work with area students to introduce them to the trade. In addition, the community will develop a system, rallying the chamber, economic development corporation and tourism industry, to help them learn how to cater to thousands of people at one time.

Ultimately, there’s the immeasurable value of history, of having the story told to those across the nation who have never heard of the London School.

“I think this will be a tremendous benefit to the families to know that their story was memorialized,” Maine said.

Mollie’s Survival

The film will be based on the historic event but will include fictionalized drama and characters, much like the movies Pearl Harbor and Titanic, Maine said. The account will include not only the tragedy of loss, but also the stories of survival, of decisions small and large that sometimes resulted in one life lost, and one life saved.

For instance, one survivor remembers with all-too-painful clarity how he asked his friend to switch seats that day so he could sit by a girl he liked. He lived, and the boy who took his seat died.

Mollie Ward, nearly 10 ? years old at the time, vividly remembers the details that led to her ultimate survival.

“This is not just my story,” Mollie said. “It is the story of a bunch of other children,” particularly those in the third and fourth grades.

The day before the explosion, Mollie and her classmates were practicing for the next day’s PTA program, which included a performance of the Mexican Hat Dance. The stage wasn’t large enough for the dance, Mollie said, so the decision was made to move from the auditorium, where programs normally were performed, to the gymnasium.

The following afternoon during the last period, the children participating in the program gathered in the gymnasium and performed for their teachers and some 50 mothers.

In the meantime, four children scheduled to play the piano in the county meet the next day – similar to today’s UIL competition – learned that the PTA program had been moved.

“They said, ‘Oh, now we can practice in the auditorium!’ ” Mollie recalled. And so they went.

The PTA program concluded shortly before the bell rang, and Mollie and her classmates were dismissed a few minutes early. The bus, normally fully loaded, had but a handful of students, including Mollie, who sat looking out the window.

One minute her school was there. The next minute, 3:17 p.m., to be exact, it was gone.

Mollie remembers seeing the school “go up.” She would later learn that the building was indeed lifted off its foundation and into the air. She clearly remembers the powdered dust – brick and mortar blown to tiny bits now blanketing heaps of rubble and burying scores of children.

Mollie remained on the bus and wondered what she should do, whether or not she should walk home. A teacher finally came and told the bus driver to take the few students to their bus stops.

When Mollie arrived at her stop, eight mothers were waiting to pick up their sons and daughters. But Mollie Ward walked off alone. Her mother grabbed her, hugged her and kissed her.

“I still hadn’t comprehended what had happened, that lives were lost and other children were hurt,” Mollie said. “I couldn’t understand why my mother was hugging me.”

As Mollie’s mother held Mollie, the other mothers started screaming. But the screams served only to confuse Mollie.

About two hours later, Mollie Ward began to mentally process the tragedy. She remembers the little boy next door arriving home with a gash across his face and Mollie’s mother helping dress the wound.

She remembers the questions and the names:

“Have you seen Geneva?”

“Have you seen Dorothy?”

“Have you seen Wayne?”

The tragedy took on deeper meaning when Mollie was told that Geneva, “my very best girlfriend,” had died.

Mollie would later learn that everyone who had been in the gymnasium for the PTA program survived. However, the auditorium – where the PTA program would have been had it not been for the Mexican Hat Dance – was blown away. Everyone in the room died, including the four students who had gone to practice the piano.

Julie Anderson, Editor