Dec 03, 2019 I Brent Swancer

Tragic Disasters and Mysterious Strange Coincidences that Saved Lives

Coincidences and serendipity seem to happen all of the time. There just seem to be those instances where everything seems to line up just right in order to produce a situation that just seems beyond pure chance. Coincidences can be a weird thing. Disparate things can display connections which one might have never even thought possible, and it can force us to question just what this reality of ours is trying to say, or if it is all pure randomness. This can surely be felt in those bizarre cases where terrible tragedies, disasters, and catastrophes have happened, during which people have come out unscathed seemingly purely on the whims of fate and what seems to be sheer coincidence. Or is it? Here we will look at strange coincidences and accounts that revolve around terrible fatal events that people have managed to avoid due to pure luck, or some serendipitous circumstance that put them out of harm’s way.

An early account of this supposedly happened during the War of 1812, at a time when British forces were invading Washington D.C. On August 25, 1812, the unstoppable British were at their doorstep, and then President James Madison was getting ready to evacuate along with countless others in the face of certain doom. The British began setting fires all around the city and ransacking everything they saw, but that was when something extraordinary would happen. There, in the middle of the city, a tornado sprang up to toss the British troops around and cause chaos in their ranks, and to add to this was a thunderstorm that sprung up at the same time to douse and extinguish many of the fires. The British soon abandoned the city, the damage was haulted, and history would have been much different if it had not been for that freak tornado and thunderstorm. Coincidence or divine intervention?

One such story revolving around who would become a very famous person in history happened to American business magnate and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller. At the time he wasn’t yet the richest person in modern history, and it is only because of a very lucky accident that he would live to see that day at all. On December 18, 1867, Rockefeller was about to make a train trip from Cleveland, Ohio, to Buffalo, New York, but the notoriously punctual and organized business man on this day managed to just miss the train. It was very frustrating to him at the time, as he had already sent his bags ahead without him, and it was an uncharacteristic screw up for the usually meticulous future oil tycoon. However, the train would encounter catastrophe, when the last two cars of the train would derail over a deep gorge on the way to its location, killing 49 people. Spookily, Rockefeller's assigned seat was in one of those doomed cars, meaning that if he had been on time like usual then history would have been much different than what we know today.

220px John D  Rockefeller 1885
John D. Rockefeller

One astonishing tale of a fateful coincidence is that of the man called Ludger Sylbaris. Born in 1875 on the Caribbean French island of Martinique, he was known as a rowdy, bar-brawling drunkard, and was mostly not considered a nice guy at all, yet for some reason fate was smiling upon him. On May 7 of 1902, Sylbaris was arrested after a violent drunken altercation in the town of St. Pierre, in which he had attacked someone with a knife, and he was given the stern sentence of an entire month languishing in solitary confinement. It doesn’t seem very lucky so far, but things would change.

He was placed in a darkened cell buried half underground, the only light filtering in through a tiny slit in the door, and there he wallowed in his own filth, dreading what the next month would have in store for him. The next day, on May 8, 1902, an apocalyptic catastrophe would come to the island, when the Mt. Pelée volcano spectacularly erupted with great violence, leveling the entire town and snuffing out an estimated 30,000 people within minutes. Everything within an 8 mile radius of the angry volcano was completely obliterated, with buildings turned to rubble, people igniting into flame, snuffing out on toxic gases, and even those who were in hiding suffocated or baked alive in their dwellings. It was complete hell on earth, and would have been very much like what a nuclear strike might look like, and by the time it was all over there were practically no survivors.

Well, there was at least one survivor, because Sylbaris was still sitting in his cell, which was sturdy, mostly underground, and had only a slit that kept the worst of the ash and fumes out. He wasn’t unscathed, as the heat had become unbearable and he would receive extensive burns, but in the end he only survived because he had been locked up in one of the most well-fortified, strongest structures in the whole region. After four days suffering without any food, water, or word from the outside world, indeed no idea of whether the outside world even still existed or not, he was finally rescued and given a full pardon. His remarkable story of survival was enough to make him a sort of celebrity, and he would go on to even tour with the Barnum & Bailey Circus, where he was variously called “The Last Survivor of St. Pierre,” “The man who lived through Doomsday” and “the Most Marvelous Man in the World,” although there were actually at least three people who had made it through to live to tell the tale. Still, being one of only three survivors out of 30,000 isn’t bad for a belligerent drunk jerk who had been thrown in jail.

Remains of the cell where Ludger Sylbaris survived the eruption
The cell of Ludger Sylbaris

Moving on into later years we have the tale of an entire football team that avoided death due to a lucky fluke. In 1942, the Boston Eagles were unstoppable, having won game after game to trash the competition, and going into their next game they were expected to soundly trounce their opponent, the Holy Cross Crusaders. With the Crusaders having been on a losing streak it was mostly seen as a foregone conclusion that the powerful, undefeated Eagles were going to easily thrash them to go on to the Sugar Bowl, and the Eagles had even gone ahead to plan their victory celebration at a nightclub called the Cocoanut Grove. The game itself was seen mostly as just a formality, so imagine everyone’s surprise when the underdog Crusaders actually somehow managed to win by quite a large margin. It doesn't seem so lucky yet, but give it some time.

The Eagles and their fans were reeling in shock at the surprise upset, and the wild afterparty was cancelled as they hung their heads in shame. That night, on what was supposed to be their glorious victory party, the Cocoanut Grove was involved in one of the worst nightclub fires ever recorded, resulting in the horrific deaths of 492 people, among them which would have surely been the entire Eagles team if they had won that game. It was ascertained that the club had been packed way past its maximum occupancy, and this had contributed to the high death toll. It appears that losing that important game had saved their lives.

Just a few years later we have an incredible story that unfolded in 1950, in Beatrice, Nebraska. At 7:25 PM on March 1, 1950 the otherwise quiet evening in the town of Beatrice, Nebraska, was shaken by the roar of an explosion, so powerful and fierce that it knocked out power all over town, shattered windows, and caused a local radio station to shut down. The epicenter of this spectacular blast was soon found to be the Beatrice’s West Side Baptist Church, which had been completely destroyed and gutted by fire, the roof caved in and walls blown out to reduce it to a charred heap. It was considered a travesty at the time, as a chorus had been scheduled to have practice there at that time, and considering they had never missed a day and were never late it was widely expected that some bodies would be found in the burnt rubble, yet there were none, and this was due to a series of incredibly unlikely events that made sure that every single one of the 15 members of the chorus and their reverend would be just late enough to avoid certain death.

The reverend had been late for the practice because as he had been leaving the house with his wife and daughter to attend it had turned out that his daughter’s dress was soiled from spilling food on it and so his wife had ironed another. High school student Ladona Vandergrift had never been late a day for choir practice, but on that evening she had been stumped by a problem on her geometry homework and was so absorbed in it that she lost track of time and wanted to finish it before she left. Her friend and fellow choir member Rowena Estes and her sister were having car trouble that day, unable to get the vehicle to start no matter what they did, and oddly they called Ladona for a ride, which she could not do in a timely fashion because of that homework, making all three of them late and therefore saving their lives. Their high school classmates and neighbors Lucille Jones and Dorothy Wood usually went to practice together and were always early, yet on this day Lucille found herself so fascinated by a program she was listening to on the radio that she missed her usual time to leave the house and so made Dorothy late as well. Another student and pianist for the choir, Marilyn Paul, had actually wanted to arrive very early, but for reasons she could not explain she had taken an unusually deep nap after dinner and overslept.

It was not only students who were late for all of these odd reasons. Marilyn Paul’s mother was the choir director and she was late too, simply because she was trying to wake up her daughter, who could strangely not be easily roused from her slumber. Bizarrely, another woman named Joyce Black, who happened to be the choir stenographer, was also late because she was feeling uncharacteristically sleepy and lazy that evening, for some reason deciding to wait until the last minute to get up and brave the chill outside. She lived right across the street from the church, so close that her windows were blown out by the blast and objects were thrown about. Making it all odder still is that Black had just been about to leave the house when the explosion occurred.

Another woman named Leonard Schuster typically went to the practice with her young daughter, but both of them were late because Schuster had suddenly been called upon to help work on a meeting for a missionary. Lathe operator Herbert Kipf was late because he had been working on an important letter and decided to stop along the way to send it off, and machinist Harvey Ahl had planned to go to the practice with his two sons but lost track of time chatting with them, leaving the house late and unknowingly saving the lives of all three of them in the process. How is it that 15 different people, all known for their punctuality, all happened to be late on this one night, many of them for odd reasons and in some cases just barely managing to miss that 5- minute window between 7:20 and what would have been their grisly deaths at 7:25? What are the odds that not a single one of them was in that building when it was destroyed? Was this all just a random set of freak coincidences, or were there other mysterious forces at work?

Just as incredible is a story from 1986, in the rural town of Cokeville, on the Wyoming-Idaho border. On May 16, 1986, a disturbed, demented young man by the name of David Young, along with his wife Doris, drove up to the Cokeville elementary School, armed to the teeth with firearms and with a load of potent explosives for a planned terrorist attack on the school. A total of 136 children and 17 adults were roughly corralled into that classroom, and David told them of the bomb trigger he held on his wrist, cobbled together from a clothespin and shoelace. He then ranted about how the school was brainwashing the children, and demanded $2 million per child as a ransom. He told them that if they refused, then he was going to blow them all up, and that they would reunite in his “Brave New World” he had often fantasized about, with him as their new god. He also threatened to shoot anyone who escaped, training his weapon on the terrified crowd. Meanwhile, his own daughter had gotten cold feet, and alerted authorities to what they had planned to do, and both police and concerned parents had begun to gather outside.

David young cokeville
David Young

The situation turned into a tense standoff, with the authorities trying to buy time as they tried to decide what to do against the increasingly impatient and volatile Young. While they waited the teachers tried to calm the children by singing songs and playing games, all while some of them fell ill from the gasoline fumes from the bomb and had guns waved about in their direction. When the adults tried to get the children to say a prayer Young apparently got very agitated and told them to be quiet, and he also got very aggressive when one of the students got too close and reached out for him. It was very tense indeed, but then things would come to a head when at around 4 PM David left the room to go to the restroom and handed the bomb trigger to his wife.

At some point while he was gone, Doris accidentally triggered the bomb, which sent her flying across the room “like a flaming torch,” and enveloped everyone in smoke and fire from the blast. David came running back in to find Doris grievously injured, after which he pulled a sidearm and calmly shot her and then himself, killing them both. When the blast was heard outside and the smoke and panicked children began erupting from the windows the police moved in, and they did not expect to find anyone at all alive, but amazingly, although many were hospitalized with burns or from smoke inhalation, every single one of the hostages survived. One official on the scene would say, “They were all in the classroom when it went off. The classroom was demolished. I don’t know how they got out alive.” It was a miraculous turn of events, but later witness testimony pointed to the possibility that this had been an actual literal miracle.

The sequence of strange coincidences that came together to ensure that no innocent people died is truly mind-boggling. Open windows and doors had helped dispel some of the bomb’s blast, and it was also found that everyone just happened to have been in a location of the room that provided some amount of shielding from the blast. It is also weird that not a single one of the guns piled on the floor had gone off in the fire, and it would turn out that only one of the bomb’s five blast containers had gone off. One of the of the bomb’s containers of blasting powder had also gotten wet for some reason, ruining it, although why it should be so soaked could not be determined and remains mysterious. The wires to two of the others had been cut for reasons unknown, and the other had simply not gone off even though nothing had been physically wrong with it. It was later estimated that if they had all gone off no one would have possibly survived the immense explosion. In addition to this, in one instance an ambulance carrying victims away supposedly had its fan belt give out, only for some truckers to come along and have a spare of exactly the same size belt. There would be talk of angels being seen intervening during the crisis, and it is hard to imagine that these coincidences were just pure chance.

Coming up into the year 2001, we have one of the most well-known disasters of all. On September 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 people lost their lives when two planes smashed into the World Trade Center towers in Manhattan New York, in a terrorist attack that still reverberates to this day. The death toll might have been higher if it weren’t for some peculiar and strange twists of fate, and there are a few odd coincidences surrounding this travesty. One such case is that of a woman named Holly Winter, of Denver, Colorado, who had planned to meet up with some old friends at the Twin Towers on that fateful day, until a change of plan occurred. Winter would say of the spooky circumstances:

I was supposed to be at the Twin Towers on September 11 with my two best friends from college, who lived in Chicago and New York City. Because the NYC-based friend worked non-stop, Winter and her other friend coordinated their calendars for a surprise breakfast picnic on September 11 in New York at his office in the original One World Trade Center. It was the only date that worked for both of us. Our plan was to fly into the city the night before, then show up at his office at 8:00 a.m. with a breakfast of champagne and caviar—his favorites. I called my mom who lived in upstate New York to let her know her I was coming to town, and she told me she was coming to visit me instead. I begged her to change her trip, reminding her that she was retired, so her schedule was more flexible. She refused, saying it felt like the right time to visit. My Chicago friend decided to make the trip without me. The surprise worked as planned and they called me at 8:00 a.m., and we laughed and talked for a while. I hung up so that they could enjoy the visit without keeping me on the phone. I lost them both.

Another man named James Stefurak had never been late for a day of work in the World Trade Center in his life. Yet on this day he inexplicably was late getting there, a mistake that would save his life. He says of what happened:

At the time, I was involved in trading stocks, which typically required me to be in the office before 9 a.m. for calls with associates. I knew that morning of September 11th, I had an unusually slow calendar. Still, even on slow days, I was usually in by 9 or 9:15 but, for whatever reason, I took my sweet time getting ready that morning and was running about 20 minutes behind schedule. When I turned on the TV, I saw what was happening. My apartment had a rooftop deck with views of the Trade Centers so I immediately walked up the stairs and gazed southward down 6th Avenue. I stayed there and eventually watched the two buildings collapse, which is, needless to say, an image I can’t forget. Had I taken the subway down at my normal time, around 8:30, I may not have been so lucky—subway cars were stopped and stuck getting into the Tower after the first plane hit. Today, I am married with four beautiful kids in Florida.

Perhaps even more harrowing is the case of Greer Epstein, who was actually in the building on that day, until she had a cigarette break that probably saved her life. She says of what happened:

At 8:40, I received a call from a co-worker who suggested we prep for a later meeting over a cigarette. I grabbed my cigarette case and headed to the elevator. The elevator car jumped and bounced as I reached the ground floor. I remember thinking, ‘I am not taking that car again,’ as I exited and made note of the car number. I turned toward the revolving doors to the street. Through the plate glass windows, I saw people ducking, flaming paper raining down, and a man cowering next to a planter with a briefcase over his head. As I turned toward the revolving door, I noticed that so many people were jammed into it that it couldn’t turn. I remember looking up and seeing a huge hole in the side of the first tower. I heard someone say a plane had hit the building. We watched for a while and saw people holding on to the outside of windows way up on the building. Then they were just letting go, falling all that way. As I stood and watched, I saw a plane coming from the south and flying right toward the second tower. It felt like the world was ending.

In every single one of these cases we have a set of very odd coincidences and fortuitous events converging to save lives, and in some cases even change history as we know it. Is this just blind luck, random chance, and pure coincidence? Or are there maybe no coincidences, and these things were fated to be for reasons we may never fathom, maybe even miracles? What is "luck" and "coincidence" anyway, and do we even know? Does it perhaps have some meaning that lies beyond our understanding? Whatever the case may be, these accounts make us look at the universe with new eyes, and ponder what it is all about, its potential mysteries, and what our place in it is.

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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