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On May 18, 1927 at 8:45 A.M., a devastating explosion ripped through the north wing of the Bath Community School in Bath Township, Michigan. Of the two-hundred and thirty six elementary and middle school students attending classes there, thirty-eight were killed along with seven adults. One teacher who had survived the explosion later described it as being like an earthquake. ""It seemed as though the floor went up several feet," she told Associated Press. "After the first shock I thought for a moment I was blind. When it came the air seemed to be full of children and flying desks and books. Children were tossed high in the air; some were catapulted out of the building."
Even as emergency crews were reacting to the explosion, a second explosion occurring almost simultaneously ripped through several buildings on a nearby farm. Volunteers who had came to battle the blaze found a large store of dynamite in one corner of the main farmhouse and carefully put out the fire to prevent further explosions. The cellar had been wired with over 500 pounds of explosives which had failed to go off for some reason. At the same time that volunteers were arriving to battle the blaze, the farm's owner, 55-year-old Andrew Kehoe, calmly exited the farm in his Ford truck but stopped to tell volunteers to head to the school since they would be needed there.
A half-hour later, Kehoe was dead himself. He had driven his truck to the site of the school disaster and apparently got into an altercation with school superintendent Charles Hawson. Witnesses later reported Kehoe and Hawson apparently fighting over a rifle when the truck was destroyed in a new explosion. One report suggests that the explosion was caused by Kehoe deliberately shooting his gun at the box of explosives sitting in the back seat of his vehicle. Along with Kehoe and Hawson, the blast killed a retired farmer and Cleo Clayton, an eight-year-old who had already survived the first bombing and had the misfortune to wander in a daze over to the spot where he was killed by the fragmentation of the exploding vehicle. Postmaster Glenn Smith was also mortally wounded when his leg was blown off by the explosion (he died later that day).
As one survivor later reported in describing the final explosion:
I began to feel as though the world was coming to an end. I guess I was a bit hazy. Anyway, the next thing I remember I was out on the street. One of our men was binding up the wounds of Glenn Smith, the postmaster. His leg had been blown off. I went back to the building and helped with the rescue work until we were ordered to stop while a search was made for dynamite.
In the grim aftermath, a local pharmacy was turned into a triage centre for the wounded while the dead bodies were taken to the town hall which had been converted into a makeshift morgue. Hundreds of people worked through the night searching wreckage for bodies and in the fading hope that some children may have survived somehow. State police arrived on the scene and firefighters from as far away as Lansing, Michigan came to render assistance.
Then-Governor Fred Green also arrived on the scene and personally assisted with clearing the wreckage of the school. Police searching the school discovered that the death toll might have been much worse. An additional five hundred pounds of explosives, along with an alarm clock set to go off at 8:45 AM, had been carefully placed in the south wing of the school. Though obviously set to go off at the same time as the first explosion, it had failed for unknown reasons. Authorities later speculated that the vibration of the explosion had caused a short circuit that prevented the rest of the explosives from going off. Rescue efforts were halted while bomb experts defused the device and removed all explosives from the school.
By this time, the American Red Cross had mobilized at the pharmacy and had taken charge of the recovery operation. The Lansing Red Cross office also set up a telephone line where relatives of the victims could call for news and updated lists of fatalities. Thousands of dollars in donations were collected to cover the funeral costs of the victims as well as medical expenses for survivors. Newspapers around the world carried details of the tragedy despite being largely overshadowed by coverage of Charles Lindbergh's historic flight across the Atlantic. Schoolchildren from around the world wrote letters of support for the victims and their families. The outpouring of grief over the bombing, still the worst mass-murder involving a school in U.S. history, helped drive efforts to rebuild the school.
Though the coroner's inquest was still to be held, much of the anger over what had happened was directed at the man who quickly became the prime suspect in the bombings: school board treasurer and farmer, Andrew Kehoe, who had been killed when the explosives in his truck detonated. Though nobody had any idea why the 55-year-old Kehoe would plan such a gruesome act of domestic terrorism, there seemed little doubt that he was involved given the amount of explosives found at his farm as well as in his truck. Since he had left no note, neighbours suggested that his recent defeat in the election for Township clerk, along with his wife's chronic battle with tuberculosis and the recent foreclosure on his farm, may have inspired him to take revenge against the entire world.
In the months leading up to the disaster, neighbours noticed that Kehoe had stopped working on his farm and largely cut himself off from his family. He and his wife, Nellie, had no children and her frequent hospital stays meant that he lived on the farm alone much of the time. He was also in major financial difficulties and was on the verge of losing his farm, something that he blamed on high school taxes. As for the dynamite and blasting caps that Kehoe used, it was believed to have been stolen from a construction company the weekend before.
On May 16, Nellie Kehoe came home from the hospital for one of her brief home stays. In an apparent act of "mercy killing", Kehoe killed his wife and placed her body in one of the farm buildings. He then worked all night stacking explosives at the school (to which he had access as a member of the school board) and wired his farm to be destroyed as well.
On May 18, Kehoe put his gruesome plan into action and the town of Bath was left to deal with the aftermath while families mourned their dead.
To be continued.
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