Up in smoke.

tent fireLast night, fifteen minutes before our Scholarship Dinner for 700 people was to begin here at Oglethorpe University , my husband (and OU’s president) called me at home to say: “There’s been an explosion. Don’t come.”

I threw on my clothes and drove over to campus.

On the way, all I could think of was that somebody — a hopeful scholarship student, or a parent, or one of our staff, or a current student — might be hurt. My heart was beating loudly in the hollow of my chest and I was thinking how strange it was to be so scared in the beautiful afternoon sun.

At the same time, knowing how arduously my husband, the board, and all the faculty and staff have worked to make this little college a success these past 7 years — I was also filled with dread that the long, hard struggle of pulling the school out of debt and into a positive, promising position might also go up in smoke. Would we be remembered as the people presiding over a disaster that marked the college with grief? How could everything change from celebration to catastrophe in the matter of a second? melted plastic

The minute I turned into the driveway I saw the firetrucks with their whirling red lights, a host of yellow emergency trucks, and clusters of people… but nobody looked chaotic or grieved, so I felt a huge rush of relief. A guard told me that a propane tank outside the huge tent had exploded, sending a 75-foot fireball into the sky. Although all the serving staff were in the tent setting up, miraculously no one had been hurt although their shaken faces made me fight back tears and grab them in big hugs of assurance. Thinking of what might have happened had the tank exploded 4o minutes later when the tent was packed with hundreds of students and their families – well, that scenario was just too grim to imagine.

The dinner was cancelled. The kids and their parents were sent home with our best wishes and apologies — but they were in great spirits and appreciated the calm management and immediate communication that came from our staff. The rest of us took a few bottles of wine into the Admissions office, the chairman of the board and his wife brought in a half-dozen pizzas, and we all sat around in dazed and grateful shock and amazement.

hands_in_prayerI went to church this morning wanting to thank the universe for sparing us … but that assumes, of course, that the universe would have been punishing us had things turned out differently. And therein lies the shame and guilt when bad things happen. The truth is a terrible accident can happen to anyone, at any time, and often there is nobody to blame. But that reality is awfully terrifying to admit; we want our universe to make more sense than that and we want to feel as if our good intentions and conduct will spare us from tragedy.

Peace like a river.

Peace like a river.

Our closing hymn today was all about God protecting us — which I so want to and in fact, do believe — but does that mean, for all the people who do get hurt and suffer and perish, that He somehow failed to protect them? Or didn’t care about them? (And yes, Sandy Hook came to mind and pierced me with sorrow.)

I’m just so grateful today that I don’t have to grieve, and our campus doesn’t either. But I can’t make sense of it.burnt

38 thoughts on “Up in smoke.

  1. I just caught up on your life! So glad everyone was O.K. and from your previous post…that you’ve been having some down time…movies/books, etc. As far as making sense of life…I don’t usually try. It takes away time from living it. 🙂

  2. Betty, thanks for making all of us think!! That is what the world needs. I also have a need to believe there is God. I do believe AbFab expressed it well. God lives in each of us that extend the hand, the words, or more to bring a little happiness, and love into another persons life. If all mankind did this “what a wonderful world this would be”. So my take is I need to live life as though I am God’s messenger of love [not religion, which seems to muck up the situation]. AND humor and laughter seem to help that feeling of love blossom!! Thanks for making me think again!!!

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  4. I read this the other day Betty, but did not have a chance to respond.

    The “what ifs” and “whys” in life will certainly drive us all nutty. I am glad that the accident occurred at a time when no one was around. I am certain that many people reflective on the incident will hug loved ones more tightly these days.

    I hope your week goes well.

    • Thanks, SD — it certainly was a better week after the explosion … and you of all people who are writing about tragic homicides and mysteries know how tenuous and precious life is — wondering how you are feeling about the ex-cop manhunt out in LA?? I’m quite sure he is miles away — at least for now!

  5. It’s so easy to focus on the terrible things that happen in the world. Your two amazing blogs — and your equally amazing books — address the negative realities of life with honesty and humor, even as you manage, always, to find the hidden good and offer hope. The photographs in this post could have depicted injury and death, but instead show only damage to replaceable, inanimate objects. Your sense of gratitude and relief about that is a reflection of what could have been, and is just as important as the horror we feel when things turn out otherwise. When an event goes from “celebration to catastrophe,” it rarely goes back to celebration. I imagine that this time it will. Thank you for telling us about it.

  6. What a scare! I recall my days visiting your beautiful campus. I am so glad no one was hurt. Thank you for sharing and reassuring students and staff. I know Larry must be well assured to. Blessings!

  7. Dear Betty and Larry I am sooo glad you guys are ok and of course the rest of the staff who were there… what a scare!! thats why accidents are accidents, they wont tell you when they are going to happen…
    Hope you can carry on with the Scholarship dinner soon and continue with the universities plans.

    Big hugs, Vivian from Guatemala

  8. What a scare. So glad that there weren’t any injuries. Take care. PS Larry has done an excellent job at Oglethorpe. He is very fortunate to have your support. Here’s praying for smooth sailing.

  9. My gosh, Betty. Your observations are so helpful on so many levels. If only you had an even larger “pulpit” from which to broadcast them…

  10. Well, Betty, I am just so grateful that the world has you, and appreciate your candid reflections on what God means in our lives. Truly, I think God is most present in the love and support we offer each other in the face of tragedy, and in the joy we express when we embrace gratitude for life’s blessings. This story will stay with me.

    • Thanks, Yasmina and I think your description of God’s presence is something that completely resonates with me… and why even in tragedy, it seems we have the opportunity to experience so much love. Really grateful for your comment – among other joys!! xoxoxo b

  11. oh my god Betty I’m glad no one was injured. I love the way Larry said “Don’t come” and you immediately drove over.
    Of course there will be an investigation to try find out why the propane tank blew up but whatever they find – whether it’s god’s ability to protect (which was Crystal’s interpretation) we will never know – but I’m sure there will be much gratitude and thanks that the explosion and fire didn’t happen 15 minutes later when 700 people were seated in the tent…

    • Rosie — thanks so much for your concern and yes, the tent company is investigating the propane tank as this has never happened before for them … I guess despite all my philosophical and spiritual reflections, the thing I am taking away most ardently is not to take good fortune for granted, and to be grateful for all the ways our lives turn out happily every day. And yes, to have all those people safe … what a huge blessing!!

  12. Who can ever really know why things happen as they do? If thoughts are ‘energy’ then the focused energy of intention (aka ‘prayer’…in whatever denomination), is a powerful way to express appreciation and send it out to our world. Thus perhaps, contributing to more ‘good’ energy? Your honest reflection always touches my heart, Betty. As sad as I am that this happened, how wonderful is it that not a single person was hurt! For all the questions that plague the spiritual aspect of our lives; take time to truly breathe in the joy of compassion in the universe that no one was harmed. It doesn’t solve the larger questions like Sandy Hook, but it may help keep one balanced and on solid ground to keep sending out that good energy to the world with our very own lives. You are such a vibrant example to this process in action. Oglethorpe’s really lucky they got a two-fer when your husband came on board there with you!

    • THANK YOU for this wonderful message, AbFab!! I agree that positive energy is the best contribution we can make to others and to our world in general and I’m so pleased you think I’ve helped to contribute some of that. I’ve certainly been inspired by all the incredible people who are living lives that are SO difficult around the world — and yet, they smile, they give, they persevere with grace — so that was a huge lesson to me. I am so SO grateful that no one was hurt and am still reeling with thankfulness — and I’m happy for all my blogging friends’ support, too!! Like you!

    • I’m far more pragmatic (and less spiritual) as I age. A fatalist somewhat, when it’s my time kind of thinking. There are too many tragedies in the world for me to try and understand why God protects some and not others. I do feel He has his reasons but it’s something we’ll never comprehend.

      AbFab said everything so well, extraordinarily eloquent actually, that I will not even begin to add to her words.

      Betty, so glad to know that you, Larry, and all the Oglethorpe families are safe. Phew.

  13. To add a bit of levity to your great post, Larry tells you what has happened and one more thing, don’t come. What’s the first thing you do…you come. Smile. I wouldn’t have expected anything less from you. So happy it had the best outcome that anyone could hope for in a situation that starts with an explosion. I did enjoy the picture of the river. Miss you all.

    • Oh, I know Joyce — and of course, I paid not one bit of attention — that’s just the kind of wife I am! (as you well know) … can’t wait to see you as we’re planning to come down to Yellow Bluff a LOT more! cheers!! b

  14. wow Betty. Glad everyone is ok. Loved how you put into words what is so often difficult for me to articulate. sometimes bad things happen to good people for no reason.

    Date: Sun, 27 Jan 2013 17:58:30 +0000 To: aciaccio@hotmail.com

    • It’s one of the great existential questions .. and one I feel so blessed I have never really had to answer from personal experience. But it troubles us all, and makes us question our faith — which is a good thing, I believe. Hope to see you soon, Amanda!!

  15. Betty – couldn’t read this fast enough – anticipating the worst – so glad to hear it worked out so (relatively) well. You pose though the very question that makes me struggle so much with faith – but I appreciate your view of it.

    Guess you won’t get the deposit back on the tent, but otherwise glad all’s well. Take care,

    • Susan — Given that you’ve probably overseen enough events like this yourself, you can only imagine the horror. BUT … it was totally the responsibility of the tent company (who has never seen anything like this happen in 20 years in business) so I think the college’s liability is nil — although we did just put in a whole new turf field underneath the tent and that now has melted plastic tent bits welded into it so … looks like we’ll be putting in another new field. What a fiasco but in the scheme of things, such a happy ending with nobody hurt!! And struggling with faith…. yeah.

    • Dearest Chris — I don’t often wax so philosophical but this incident just really made me question my own set of assumptions and presumptions, and while feeling SO fortunate at the outcome, to recognize the razor’s edge that we pretend we don’t stand on. I’m beyond grateful that nobody was hurt — especially all the waiters & servers who I love and who were right in there, lighting candles and working when the propane exploded. What a gift that everyone came out just fine!

  16. I have had a really bad 9 yrs., including losing everything, the death of my mother and my daughter being diagnosed with Kidney failure. After heart surgery, congestive heart failure, shots every 2 wks. and IV’s of blood cells to make the shots work my other daughter miraculously gave her a new kidney!! During this time I discovered the Archangels and have talked to them every night and day for yrs. I think we have to notice the small miracles (which you experienced through this explosion), which I call “goosebump moments” and believe we are given these to keep believing (i.e. she was scheduled for dialysis 3 times, but never had to have it). My main wish in life is to be able to take off (with my daughter), travel around the country and give some sort of help to peole who have lost so much and are trying to hang on as we all are and understand the reason for these tragedies. Maybe good people are needed on the other side for other miracles to come. At least that’s one of my mind’s explanations. Glad everyone was o.k.

    • Thanks, Melinda! I am so sorry for all your troubles and can empathize with the kidney disease issue as my brother-in-law was recently diagnosed with Wegener’s disease and is now on dialysis and awaiting a kidney transplant. I am happy your faith has sustained you through these tough times and only hope I can show the same grace under pressure as you —
      and come to some peaceful understanding of our place in it! All the best!

  17. What a relief, no real harm to anyone or to the campus either. How awful, awful to imagine what could have been – but thankfully was not.

    • I attended this event with my daughter and my mother. This was no less than an act of God that nobody was injured. The people at the University and the surrounding community were fantastic! Warm, welcoming, and aside from this accident, the weekend was just lovely! Unfortunately, accidents do happen and sometimes, by the grace of God, we survive and thrive, as is the case with Oglethorpe. Thanks you to the administrators who kept us all informed and to the students that kept everyone going. Well done Oglethorpe!

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