Sunday, December 16, 2012

Bath School Disaster

We are all still reeling from the horrendous events that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School this past Friday.  Personally, I have had a very hard time watching the news coverage, but I did keep hearing one thing over and over:  “This is the worst school shooting in our country’s history.”  Shooting may be the key word here.  It may be hard to believe, but what happened in Newtown, Connecticut is not the worst act of school violence in American history.  That disturbing distinction belongs to a small farming town in Michigan where a madman sought vengeance and killed 45 people on a beautiful spring day in 1927.

Andrew and Nellie Kehoe owned a farm in Bath, Michigan just outside of Lansing.  Experiencing financial trouble, Kehoe lived in dire fear of losing his farm.  He blamed his money woes on high taxes and began a vehement campaign to lower them.  Elected to the Bath school board as Treasurer, Kehoe also fought hard against the building of a new school.  Not only did he feel it was unnecessary, but to him personally, a new school meant more taxes.  Despite his heated arguments opposing it, the district built the Bath Consolidated School leaving Kehoe embittered.  When his farm was finally foreclosed upon, he blamed the board and, in particular, its president, Emory E. Huyck, for ruining his life.
In the winter of 1926, the board appointed Kehoe to do maintenance work inside the new school.  But Kehoe wasn’t interested in upkeep.  He wanted revenge.  For months, he traveled from store to store in and around Lansing purchasing small amounts of explosives, which he took to the school.  There, he developed an intricate wiring system connecting the carefully laid dynamite beneath the floor and in the walls and rafters of the new building.  By May of the following year, Kehoe had laid thousands of feet of wire linking over 1,000 pounds of dynamite.  He also rigged the buildings on his farm.

On May 17, 1927, Kehoe filled the back seat of his pickup truck with old tools, nails, shovels and any other metal materials he could muster.  On top of the junk, he placed a package of dynamite.  Next, he laid a loaded rifle on the front seat.  Then he murdered his wife.
Around 8:45 the next morning, the nightmare started as the first deadly explosions came directly from Kehoe’s farm.  In the midst of their early morning routines, concerned neighbors rushed to offer help, but within minutes the entire farm went up in flames.  Shortly after, a second explosion shook the town.  The school!  Panic took over as the townsfolk rushed to the scene unable to comprehend the horror they found.  Half the building was gone.  Trapped underneath the fallen roof and collapsed walls were the children—some eerily silent, some hysterically screaming.  With windows shattered in nearby homes, cars on fire and trees aflame, more explosions could be heard coming from the Kehoe farm.  The people of Bath thought they were under siege.

Amidst the chaos, Andrew Kehoe pulled up in his truck.  He spotted Huyck frantically digging through the rubble in an effort to save the children.  Kehoe called to him and as Huyck approached the truck, Kehoe picked up his rifle and fired a shot directly into the dynamite behind him.  As the vehicle exploded, the metal debris in the backseat turned into deadly shrapnel killing not only Kehoe, but Huyck, Postmaster Glen Smith, resident Nelson McFarren, as well as an eight-year-old boy who had just survived the school explosion and happened to be walking by.
In addition to the first responders, volunteers came from nearby towns to help with the digging, which lasted most of the day.  Even Michigan Governor Fred Green assisted with debris removal.  As rescue efforts unfolded, however, officials discovered more dynamite in the basement.  Over 500 pounds of undetonated dynamite was removed from what remained of the school.  It seems that the first explosion caused something to go wrong with Kehoe’s wiring and only half of the dynamite had gone off.

In the end, 38 children (ages 7 to 14) and seven adults were killed that day with dozens more injured.  Every single home in the community suffered from an injury or a fatality—some lost more than one child.
Today a small park stands on the spot where the school once was.  The names of the children that died there are engraved on a bronze plaque—Bath’s way of ensuring that they, nor their story, will be forgotten.  What happened on May 18, 1927 in Bath was, and still is, the worst incident of school violence in American history and, until the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995, it stood alone as the single worst act of domestic terrorism—a term unheard of back in 1927. 

And now, as we mourn the unbearable loss of the children in Newtown, in what the news tells us is the worst school shooting in our country’s history, we should remember the young victims whose families were also left shattered by a mind-numbing act of hatred that played out 85 years ago on a beautiful morning in May.

6 comments:

  1. Most people don't, Imogene. It was a terribe, terrible thing.

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  2. Oh no - what a horrible thing to happen.

    It really is the unthinkable, isn't it, when children are targeted like this...

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    1. A terrible, terrible thing when anyone hurts a child--I can't even begin to understand how someone could do such a thing.

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  3. I know a woman who is related to Emory Huyck, distantly: Lorinda Ann Huyck. Both died very unexpectedly.

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    1. Thank you for sharing and stopping by.

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