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New London Book Review

Brown, David M., and Michael Wereschagin. Gone at 3:17: The Untold Story of the Worst School Disaster in American History. United States: Potomac Books, 2012.

Gone at 3:17: The Untold Story of the Worst School Disaster in American History, an incredibly descriptive, heart-wrenching 2012 book by Pittsburg journalists David M. Brown and Michael Wereschagin, is a retelling of the horrific event that took place at London Junior-Senior High School on March 18th, 1937. A natural gas leak led to the school exploding and killing close to 300 people, a majority of them children. The authors, working primarily with primary source interviews, split the book into four parts: the details leading to the explosion, the explosion itself, the aftermath, and the epilogue. Near the end the book discusses how safety laws were changed by the event, not only in the state of Texas but in the country and across the globe. Gone at 3:17 is a unique addition to historiography because it effectively shows the radical difference that news sources made in calling for aid and keeping the public informed by including perspective from different reporters.

Brown and Wereschagin include a abundance of background information to the events preceding the gas leak and explosion. One of the biggest points of focus is the East Texas oil boom. The authors show how this boom in Texas greatly intertwines with not only the explosion, but the jobs, lives, and families of those in New London. The information the authors provide is incredibly thorough and help set the scene of the community to give insight to what the lives of the families in the town were like. As well as how large the community was and how the explosion killed a large part of their future generations.

The second part of the book embodies the chaos that started at 3:17 and makes great use of dozens of interviews done by the authors themselves as well as old newspapers and wire services that broadcasted during the entire event. These chapters are mainly compiled accounts from survivors and those who were nearby the school at the time, piecing together the entire event from different perspectives and locations. There are some specific survivors that serve as anchors throughout the book, they help keep the gruesome, chaotic stories chronologically organized. Some of these survivors play large roles in the narrative, while others are simply mentioned in different interviews. The survivors that are mentioned in these smaller fashions show that, although this was such a major event and there were a large number of people involved, that it was also still a smaller town where everyone knew everyone. Photographs of the school, town, and people were included to add to the realness of the book and help the readers visualize New London and see the extent of the damage done.

Brown and Wereschagin add the perspective of the press into the second part. Inclusion of these perspectives convey how vital and major the impact these news sources had immediately after the explosion and in the following week. The authors start by giving background on how news operated at the time and mention key reporters at the event. There are multiple chapters that are from the points of view of the reporters who ended up on scene. Most of these reporters stayed awake for over 48 hours covering the event and without them spreading the news, the flood of volunteers and aid would have taken significantly longer and those with people in the explosion might have been left wondering where they were. Including these perspectives the authors add another angle to their book that is not mentioned in other monographs written on the subject.

In the final two parts of the book, the authors bring up the impact of this explosion on families’ lives, in lawmaking, and across the globe. The courts started an investigation, but the blame was not officially laid on anyone; however, was unofficially placed on superintendent Shaw by parents due to the decisions he made leading to the children being at the school at that time. After the tragic event one survivor, Carolyn Jones, was chosen to speak to the House of Representatives about the explosion. Her speech prompted Texas to instate new safety laws for schools and public buildings, as well as add odor to odorless gases for leaks to be more easily identified. Soon all states and even nations across the world instated these laws as well. The epilogue discusses how parents and others who lost someone‚Äôs refusal to talk about the event kept it from being understood by future generations. The survivors on the other hand hold biannual meetings and talk about the events of that day with others who understood their experiences. Also included at the end of the book is the entire list of those who lost their lives in the explosion. These final parts of the book wrap up the story by showing the aftereffects of the explosion and how it is connected to today.

There are some issues when it comes to the presentation of the book. The book, especially in the early chapters of preliminary information, is confusing since the authors move between chronological and topical organization in a choppy manner. The authors seem to do their best to include the stories of as many survivors as they can, but this leads to a large number of names mentioned within a short length of passage. However, the authors do make a point to ensure that each person mentioned also has an ending connected to their story whether it is happy or tragic, not leaving a feeling of the unknown in the readers. Overall the book is still a good book not only for education and disaster historians, but also for those interested in narrative history.

The book Gone at 3:17: The Untold Story of the Worst School Disaster in American History, retells the horrific events in a thorough and detailed manner that adds a new and important perspective to the literature on the subject. Although an incredibly heart-breaking way to improve safety standards and show the importance of news sources, the events of March 18th, 1937 in New London, Texas did just that. But, Gone at 3:17 made sure that those who lost their lives would not be forgotten.