Unsolved Mysteries Wiki

Real Name: West End Baptist Church
Case: Unexplained Phenomenon
Location: Beatrice, Nebraska
Date: March 1, 1950


Details: The West End Baptist Church of Beatrice, Nebraska, was the site of an apparent miracle that saved the lives of everyone in its choir. Between 1920 and 1950, choir director Martha Paul "ruled the roost" every Wednesday night. She demanded punctuality. If you wanted to sing in her choir, you showed up for practice no later than 7:25pm. All the members toed the line. In fact, many of them usually arrived around 7:15pm.
Martha's daughter, Marilyn Paul Mitchell, was the choir's accompanist. She said that Martha expected the whole choir to be punctual every Wednesday evening and that no one was ever really late. There might have been a few instances, but most often, everyone was there on time. She can't think of a time when anyone came late.
Though no one knew it, the night of February 22, 1950, would be the last practice in the West End Baptist Church. One week later, the members became part of a baffling unsolved mystery. Some called it a strange coincidence, but others believed it was something more. On March 1, 1950, at exactly 7:27pm, tragedy struck the church. But despite years of unfailing punctuality, that Wednesday night was different.
The afternoon of March 1 turned bitterly cold. The church's pastor, Reverend Walter Klempel, stopped by at 4:30pm to light the furnace so the church would be warm in time for that evening's practice. He then went home for dinner.
Reverend Klempel and his wife, Eunice, always brought their eighteen-month-old daughter, Marilyn Ruth, to practice with them. They would typically arrive around 7:10pm. But that night, Marilyn Ruth stained her dress, and Eunice had to iron another one. Their clock had been set back five minutes, so Eunice thought she had enough time. But in reality, it was 7:15pm, and they were running late.
At the same time, Marilyn was sound asleep. She said that she planned to arrive thirty minutes early. However, that evening, she was tired and wanted to rest for a short period of time after dinner. She decided that a little fifteen-minute nap would not hurt. But it ended up being a little bit longer, probably about half an hour. Martha tried to wake her up, but her father suggested they let her sleep a bit longer. She did not wake up until around 7:15pm.
A few blocks away, Herbert Kipf, a lathe operator who sang bass in the choir, was preoccupied working on church business. He said he was writing a letter to their denominational headquarters. He felt it was important to get it in the mail that evening. He said his mother was hounding him to get going because he was already late. But he felt it was more important to finish the letter and drop it in the mailbox on the way to practice.
Eighteen-year-old Lucille Jones, who sang alto in the choir, let herself get hooked on a radio program that night. She said that at 7pm, she turned on the radio to listen to "This is Your Life", which ran until 7:30pm. She figured that she would leave before it was over and be able to make it to practice on time. She said she did not know why she turned on the radio that night. But when they mentioned that the program would be about Edgar Bergen's life, she decided to listen to the whole thing. She was also supposed to pick up another member, neighbor Dorothy Wood. But on that evening, she did not care. She felt that Edgar Bergen was worth being late for.
Fifteen-year-old Ladona Vandegrift, who sang soprano in the choir, usually arrived at practice early. However, at 7:23pm that evening, she was struggling with a geometry problem in her homework. She was determined to find a solution for it before leaving for practice, but it was difficult, and she was running late.
Two miles away, Royena Estes' car wouldn't start. She was supposed to pick up her sister, Sadie, who was also a member. So they were both late. They called Ladona and asked her to pick them up, but she was still working on her homework.
Ruth Schuster normally arrived at 7:20pm with her young daughter, Susan. However, that evening, before going to practice, she had to go to her mother's house to help her prepare for a missionary meeting. Her brother, machinist Harvey Ahl, was also a member. Because his wife was away, he was taking care of their two sons. He was going to take them to practice with him. However, as they were talking, he lost track of time. When he looked at his watch, he realized that they were late.
Stenographer Joyce Black, who lived across the street from the church, was ready for practice but could not seem to get moving. She said she was "just plain lazy" and did not want to leave her warm house to go out into the cold. So she kept putting off doing so. Finally, when she could not put it off any longer, she got up and put her coat on. When she opened her front door and stepped outside at 7:27pm, the church exploded and disintegrated in front of her. Its walls fell outward, and its heavy wooden roof crashed down to the ground. Its steeple was thrown onto a nearby street. Many residents heard and felt the explosion.
All over the city, the lights went out. Windows shattered in the houses across the street from the church. The town's radio station was taken off the air. The Pauls were walking out their front door when the explosion occurred. Marilyn said it shook their house and sounded like a "big bomb".
Joyce said that what impressed her was their sheet music and songbooks flying through the air. She said, "It was really something to see." One of the songbooks landed right next to her and was still in good condition. She picked it up and kept it. She figured that no one would care.
Firefighters arrived shortly after the explosion to put out the fire. Around the same time, the members began to arrive, each thinking that the others had perished. Frantically, they searched the rubble for survivors. One by one, all of them straggled in, each fortuitously late for his or her own reason. Within a half hour, all fifteen members were accounted for.
Marilyn said that when they found out that everyone was safe and that no one was in the church when it exploded, they stood there holding each other's hands. One of the members said, "Let's give thanks to God." They offered a prayer of thanksgiving since they were spared, and no one lost their lives in the explosion.
Herbert said that what happened might have been a coincidence if it had been a busload of people stopped by a flat tire or any similar occurrence. But when over a dozen people are scattered throughout the entire city, and each one of them is detained over some trivial little thing, he feels that it can't be a coincidence.
Lucille said that when she realized what had happened, she thought that if she had not been listening to "This is Your Life", her life would have been over. Marilyn believes that God did not want them there at the church. She feels that they were all spared. And she is very grateful for that.
It turned out that the explosion was caused by a natural gas leak from an underground pipeline that made contact with the fire in the church's furnace. The choir loft sat directly above it. It was later calculated that there was a one-in-a-million chance that the entire choir would be late that evening.
A few years after the explosion, the church was rebuilt. Today, residents of Beatrice still wonder about the unexplained events that kept each member safely away from it. To some, it was simply a remarkable coincidence, but others believe it was the careful design of a greater power.
Extra Notes:

  • This case first aired on the January 3, 1990 episode. It was originally supposed to air on the December 20, 1989 episode, but was delayed.
  • It was also featured on Urban Legends and That's Incredible and was the basis for a "Fact" segment on Beyond Belief.
  • It was also mentioned in the book, "The Angels of Cokeville and Other True Stories of Heavenly Intervention", which focused on the Cokeville Elementary School Explosion.
  • A researcher for the show discovered this story after reading about it in a book called "Amazing Coincidences".
  • For the footage of the explosion, the producers chose a church in Unadilla, Nebraska that was slated for demolition and planned to blow it up. They flew a special effects expert to the site and surrounded it with five cameras framed by plywood boxes that would protect the gear and the cameramen. "We were supposed to cave in the roof, and we framed [the shot] slightly above the roof," Rosenfeld, who directed the segment, recalled, "[The special effects guy] blew it up way bigger than we expected. A fireball went into the air, probably a quarter mile. We were all scared." The explosion used ninety-five sticks of dynamite and three 10-gallon tubs of gasoline with debris raining down for twenty minutes. Shrapnel also speared the plywood boxes around the cameras and their operators.
  • Some sources state the church was called "West Side Baptist Church", choir practice did not start until 7:30pm, Royena and Sadie's father was also a choir member, Ladona's name is spelled "LaDonna", Herbert was going to practice with his aunt, pianist Esther Stuermer, and Lucille and Dorothy were walking together instead of driving.

Results: Unsolved. Sadly, several of the choir members have since passed away, including Harvey Ahl, Joyce Black, Lucille Jones, Herbert Kipf, Eunice and Walter Klempel, Martha Paul, Ruth Schuster, and Ladona Vandegrift.