Last 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?
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.
I 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.
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.)