The New London School explosion, the deadliest school disaster in American history, happened 78 years ago on March 18, 1937.

The explosion was caused by a natural gas leak. Of 500 students and 40 teachers in the school at the time, 294 died, according to the website for the New London Museum.

A reunion in memory of those who perished and those who survived will begin with registration at 9 a.m. Saturday in the current school auditorium. A business meeting and memorial service will follow at 10 a.m.

Class meetings will be before or after a barbecue luncheon from 12:30 to 2 p.m. Saturday, with evening festivities including a catered dinner at 7 p.m. and a dance from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. with music by Danny Burgess, of Tyler.

According to historical accounts, students were preparing for the next day's interscholastic meet in Henderson when an instructor of manual training turned on a sanding machine, igniting a mixture of gas and air that caused the explosion.

The building seemed to lift in the air and then smashed to the ground as walls collapsed and the roof fell in, burying the victims in a mass of brick, steel and concrete debris, states the New London Museum website.

Parents, who were having a PTA meeting in the gymnasium, rushed to the site of the explosion, as well as community residents and roughnecks from the East Texas oilfield, who brought heavy-duty equipment, the website states. Texas Rangers and highway patrol also responded.

Floodlights were set up, and the rescue operation continued through the night as rain fell, according to the website.

"Within 17 hours all victims and debris had been taken from the site. Mother Francis Hospital in Tyler canceled its elaborate dedication ceremony to take care of the injured. The Texas Funeral Directors sent 25 embalmers," the website reads.

The victims received individual caskets, graves and religious services, according to the New London Museum, which said about 130 students escaped serious injury.

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