The Nebraska Miracle: The West End Baptist Church Explosion (REBROADCAST of Episode 51)

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Originally released August 30, 2021. In 1950, the West-End Baptist Church in Beatrice, Nebraska exploded from a gas leak. The church should have been full of a practicing choir, but it wasn’t. This episode examines the curious circumstances that led each and every choir member to be late that day. Then we play the Quick Quiz with Jethro and Matt from the Drunkard’s Walk podcast!

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During the Civil War, the government of the United States enacted the Homestead Act of 1862. Basically, it said that if you’d never taken up arms against the nation, you could go farm on 160 acres of undeveloped government land and if you worked the land for 5 years, it was yours. Thousands of hopeful Americans, including freed black men, flocked west to begin a life in the plains. One of the first claims was that of Daniel Freeman, whose home in Beatrice, Nebraska acts now as the Homestead National Monument of America – an historic site. One of these homesteaders was a man named Frederich Pahl, a German immigrant. Frederich settled in Beatrice, Nebraska with his wife and they had 3 children. One of those children had a little girl who – just two generations from the historic homesteading of Nebraska, is involved in our story. Frederich’s Granddaughter Marilyn Ruth Paul was 18 years old and was the pianist at a local church, the West End Baptist Church. It was March 1st of 1950 and she decided to take a quick nap after dinner and before choir practice that night. She slept a little bit long and her mother had to wake her up, only 10 minutes before choir practice was about to start. She was definitely going to be late. 

That wouldn’t have been such a big deal, except this was a pet peeve of the choir director, which just happened to be her mother, Martha. Martha was a stickler about punctuality. She stressed that choir practice began promptly at 7:25pm – in fact, she demanded it from her small 15 member choir. Choir practice didn’t begin at 7:30pm – it began at 7:25pm and you’d better be there.

That Wednesday evening was a cool one. The pastor of the church left at 4:30pm, but before he left, Pastor William Kempl turned on the heat to the building. But somewhere in the church’s heating system, there was a gas leak and for the next 3 hours, the church filled with gas. At 7:27pm, the explosion could be heard throughout the entire town of Beatrice Nebraska. It shattered the windows of nearby buildings. The town radio station lost its signal. The church was flattened. The roof fell in and the walls collapsed into a pile of rubble. An absolute tragedy. Martha Paul and her daughter Marilyn were spared. They hadn’t yet made it to the church because Marilyn napped too long. 

But this is where the story gets interesting. Despite choir practice having started 2 minutes before the explosion, nobody died in the explosion. Nobody was in the church. 

When the Titanic sank, a giant suite of three adjoining rooms, a sitting room, large closets and a private balcony had been designed and intended for the American financial legend J.P. Morgan. But he was enjoying himself at a French resort and decided stay longer. So when disaster struck, he was not on board.

Mark Wahlberg was booked to fly on American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to L.A. on September, 11, 2001, but changed his plans at the last minute. That airplane tragically was flown into the World Trade Center. That same morning, Michael Jackson overslept and missed his meeting at the top of the twin towers. 

When there are tragedies like these, it seems like we always hear about the people – or at least the celebrities – who narrowly escaped fate and avoided the tragedy. But the fact remains that there were countless others who weren’t so lucky. I mean, sure J.P. Morgan survived the Titanic, but more than fifteen hundred other people died. Marky Mark and Michael Jackson survived 9/11, but almost 3,000 other people died. 

But in this story – this story of the West End Baptist Church, 100% of the people strangely avoided what would have been an absolutely horrific fate. All 15 choir members survived because they were all miraculously late to practice. For 15 different reasons. 

The pastor left at 4:30pm that day, but his daughter Marilyn was in the choir. She was late because she spilled food on her dress and was quickly ironing another one.

Herbert Kipf randomly decided to stop on the way to the church to mail a letter.

Harvey Ahl was going to bring his two young sons to practice since his wife was out of town. He got caught up talking and lost track of time.

LaDonna Vandergrift got stuck on her geometry homework. 

Joyce Black was cold, and had gotten comfortable in her warm bed, so she was late getting up.

The Estes sisters couldn’t get their car to start. 

Lucille Jones got caught up listening to a radio program and also caused her friend Dorothy to be late, who she was supposed to pick up.

Every member of the choir had a different reason for being late. So when the church exploded at 7:27pm that night, no one was there. 

Joyce Black – she was the one that was comfortable in her warm bed – lived across the street from the church and actually opened her door to leave when the explosion happened.

She said she couldn’t put it off any longer and when she opened the door, she saw the church disintegrate in front of her.

All of these stories were documented in countless newspapers and magazines soon after it happened, including Life Magazine, just 26 days later. 

The church was eventually rebuilt and frequently uses the story as proof of God’s miracles.

If you know me at all, you know that I’m an intense skeptic. I did not believe this story was true. But I’ve found so many newspaper articles from the time that tell the story. Then there’s the part of me that looks at this and it raises all kinds of questions about whether it was really an accident. When people bring up conspiracy theories about the government, I usually think there’s no WAY that many people could have kept their mouths shut. And maybe that’s the same with this story. Let’s be cynics and say this was some sort of elaborate insurance fraud plot. Could 15 people – most of them teenagers, really have kept the secret? They all would have had to have been in on it. And then there was national coverage – national newspapers and magazines looking into it. 

So then there’s the next theory. If you’re religious – maybe this story is something that strengthens your belief in miracles. After all – I have used the word miraculous to describe what happened here. 

Then there’s the chance that this was just a wonderfully crazy coincidence. 15 people from 15 different places had 15 different reasons for missing catastrophe. We’ll never know how this happened. But the Internet says it did.

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


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