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Remember the miracle

Church explosion 60 years ago not forgotten

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When Rowena Vandegrift thinks about the West Side Baptist Church explosion that took place 60 years ago today, she doesn’t think about the horror of that evening.

Instead, she remembers the wonderful feeling she had upon learning that no one was injured.

Rowena, who now lives in Wichita, Kan., is one of 15 members of the church’s choir who showed up to choir practice late that night, avoiding a natural gas explosion.

“It was an absolute miracle,” Rowena said. “It’s a reminder that God watches over all of us.”

Whether it was mere coincidence or divine intervention, the March 1, 1950 explosion has received national attention and was featured on an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries” in 1989.

In “Unsolved Mysteries,” Marilyn Paul Mitchell, a member of the choir whose mother was the choir director, said that members were always prompt and ready to sing by 7:25 p.m.

But at 7:27 p.m., when the explosion occurred, nobody was there.

“Mother expected all of us to be punctual,” Mitchell said. “Most often, everyone was there on time. I can’t remember a time where anybody came late.”

Vandegrift and her sister were late because their car had broken down and her alternate ride was late picking them up.

The pastor, his wife and his daughter were late because the daughter’s dress was soiled and the wife was ironing another. The pastor had actually lit the furnace earlier in the evening and had returned home. 

One choir member was working on an important letter while another choir member and her daughter were late because they had to tend to matters at her mother’s house before arriving.

Another man was late because he was taking care of his two sons and did not realize until the last minute that he was late.

Mitchell, the pianist for the choir, had planned to arrive 30 minutes early, but fell asleep after dinner, causing her and her mother to be late.

Two high school students, who usually rode together to choir practice, were late because one had to listen to the end of a radio program. 

And finally, Joyce Black, according to “Unsolved Mysteries,” waited until the last possible minute before leaving because of the cold weather.

Black lived across the street from the church.

“I was just plain lazy,” she told “Unsolved Mysteries.” “So I kept putting off going out the door. At last, I couldn’t put it off any longer and when I opened up the door, our church disintegrated.”

Black recalled sheet music and songbooks flying through the air after the explosion. 

The explosion could be heard around Beatrice and caused power outages throughout the town.

Francis Maguire, who still lives in Beatrice, was an alternate actress for the local filming of “Unsolved Mysteries.”

She has particular interest in the event and has kept a scrapbook of it.

Maguire was nine when the explosion took place and lived near the church.

Her father was the fire chief who responded to the explosion and her brother was a volunteer firefighter.

“We heard the noise from the explosion and the lights went out, and of course we were little kids, so we thought it was the boogie man,” Maguire said. “We saw the church steeple in the street the next day.”

The church was eventually rebuilt, and 60 years after that night when tragedy was averted, the congregation continues to grow.

Current pastor Jon Palmquist said West Side Baptist Church typically has 60 to 90 people in attendance every Sunday and has even started a children’s and adult Sunday School.

Palmquist has been the pastor for three years and said the congregation typically reflects on the miracle of 1950 whenever the anniversary comes up.

“It’s something that we give thankfulness to God for that it wasn’t a disaster that night,” Palmquist said. “It was a miracle.”

Vandegrift said she returns to Beatrice at least once a year and still keeps in contact with a few other choir members.

Vandegrift thinks about all the children and grandchildren of the choir members who would not exist today if things had been different on March 1, 1950.

“I just think about the impact all these lives have had on other people,” Vandegrift said. “Each of our lives has touched other people in some way or form, which would not have happened if we had been killed in that explosion.”


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