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Published on June 8, 2021

Grandpa Ruffo decided to tap into the gas line

What he did right and what went wrong at New London School

By Roy Edwards
The Bulletin

Last week’s column dealt with Grandpa Ruffo lighting his house with kerosene and carbide gas. Then he decided to switch to natural gas.

The changes went from dangerous to very dangerous to explosive, but Ruffo knew what he was doing - perhaps even better than the people who designed the heating system at the New London school.

Multiple shallow oil wells were being drilled in Anderson County. These wells produced a small amount of oil but a tremendous amount of natural gas. The oil industry (at that time) saw natural gas as a waste product, and most of it was in above-ground gas pipelines, crisscrossing the county.

The well owners had more natural gas than they knew what to do with, so they did not care when people started tapping into the pipelines and diverting the gas for their own personal use.

I can’t imagine going up to a high-pressure natural gas pipeline, drilling a hole in the pipe, and then threading the hole so I could screw a shut-off valve into place. I would have barbecued myself, anyone around me, and set half the county on fire. Grandpa Ruffo and the boys tapped into the line safely. Ruffo said, “The price was right.” It was free for the taking.

Ruffo and his boys ran a line from the valve to the house. I never found out whether they installed a pressure regulator on the line. Then they connected the line to the in-house copper piping system that was set up for the carbide gas, even using the existing open-flame light fixtures.

The problems with using pure natural gas are many. The gas has no natural odor, no taste, and it’s heavier than air, so it sinks into lower areas. It is also explosive, highly flammable, and it will suffocate you.

Here is in short what happened in Northeast Texas.

The town of New London is set atop a salt dome. Under the dome was a lot of oil and high-pressure natural gas. When the oil was discovered, New London became an oil boom town.

Roughnecks, drillers, merchants, and all sorts of people moved to New London to take advantage of the riches flowing out of the ground. Due to oil rights money, the New London School District became one of the richest school districts in Texas.

With all this wealth, they built a new multi-story brick school building. To save a little money, they decided not to use steam to heat the school, but to tap into a natural gas pipeline because the gas was free. The building was designed to house all the students in the district from first through the twelfth grade.

The center of the building had a large basement. In that basement was that school’s wood shop. There was a large crawl space on one side of the wood shop used to store lumber for student projects.

Sometimes, some of the boys stayed after school to work on their projects. A few minutes after school let out, one of the boys went to get a piece of lumber. When he flipped on the electric light switch to illuminate the crawl space, there was a spark, and hell on Earth ensued.

Witnesses said that the center section of the building rose three to four feet above the ground, then crashed back down. The walls blew out. The floors and the roof collapsed into the basement. Over 300 people were killed. New London lost a generation of children in a split second.

My Dad and I were driving to Rusk, a small town near New London, when I saw a road sign with an arrow pointing down a county road to New London. I said that I had never heard of New London.

My Dad said: “I was teaching school in Rusk when I heard that there had been a natural gas disaster at the New London school. I immediately left Rusk to go see if I could help. I worked there for three days and three nights. A lot of people died. Most of them were children.”

That was the only time my Dad ever mentioned the New London school explosion. No details. No elaborations.

If you want to know more about the New London tragedy, get a copy of “My Boys and Girls are in There,” by Ron Rozelle.

The legislators of the State of Texas passed bills outlawing the practice of tapping into gas pipelines. They also passed a bill mandating the introduction of a chemical into natural gas that gave the gas it’s characteristic odor that we are familiar with today.

That chemical is usually liquid ethyl mercaptan. Industry standard is to add 1.4 gallons of ethyl mercaptan to 10,000 gallons of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). A little goes a long way.

With tapping into the lines being outlawed, Ruffo needed a new energy source for lighting up his house.

Next week: a little sidebar about ethyl mercaptan and Ruffo’s ultimate solution.

(Write Roy in care of The Bulletin. Email: john.bulletin@gmail.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)