The Beatrice church explosion, 1950
Punctuality is the virtue of the bored, well at least according to Evelyn Waugh. I always make an effort to arrive for an appointment in good time but sometimes even the best of plans can go awry. The consolation of tardiness, at least according to a friend of mine, naturally someone who was notoriously late for anything, is that you are only late when you arrive. Sometimes being late can be a blessing as this curious story shows.
On the evening of Wednesday 1st March 1950 at 7.25 an explosion ripped through the West Side Baptist Church in Beatrice, Nebraska. The force of the blast was such that it could be heard in almost every corner of the town. The walls of the church were blown outwards, causing the heavy roof to crash down. Properties nearby had their windows blown out and the local radio station was forced off the air. Mercifully, nobody was injured.
But it so easily could have been a major tragedy.
You see, Wednesday evenings was when the fifteen strong choir assembled at the church for their choir practice. In fact, it always started at the oddly precise time of 7.20. As a rule, they would all start assembling around 7.15. Because they all had busy lives to lead, not all turned up for every session or some arrived slightly after the scheduled start. If you had to put a number, perhaps each chorister would be late once in about four times. But on this night, all of them were late and it was to their tardiness that they owed their lives. What are the odds of that happening?
As was his wont, the Reverend Walter Kempel went to the church in the afternoon to set things up for the choir. As it was a chilly day, he decided to light the boiler so the church would be nice and warm for the singers. It was thought that the blast was caused by a gas leak from a broken pipe which was then ignited by the fire in the boiler.
Having completed his preparations, Kempel went home for his dinner. At 7.10 when he was due to return to the church, this time with his wife and daughter, they noticed that their daughter’s dress was dirty. Their departure was delayed as Mrs Kempel had to run her iron over another dress for her daughter to wear.
And the other choristers were delayed by equally mundane occurrences. The diligent Ladona Vandergrift was puzzling over a tricky geometry problem and decided to forego her usual custom of arriving at the church early in order to finish off her homework. This delayed Royena Estes and her sister, Sadie. Their cars wouldn’t start and Ladona was due to pick them up.
Herbert Kipf stayed to finish off an important letter and Joyce Black decided to delay her departure as long as possible so she could enjoy the warmth of her hearth. Marilyn Paul, the pianist, nodded off and only woke up at 7.15, delaying her and her mother’s departure.
An engrossing radio programme which did not finish until 7.30 delayed Lucille Jones and Dorothy Wood, while Harvey Ahl got engrossed in conversation and lost track of time. And Mrs Schuster had to go to her mother’s house to help her get ready for a missionary meeting.
All mundane occurrences, for sure, but the cumulative effect was that no one was in the church when it blew up. Is there a God out there, after all?