God's Mysterious Ways

April 01, 2004 | Amber Serns

It was all black smoke and ringing alarms in Auburn Adventist Academy's girls dorm on that rainy November day. Were the girls still inside? Was anyone stubbornly lying in bed with ear plugs to wait out the “drill”? Was someone studying so intently that she didn’t want to get up and leave?

While others, thinking mostly of the novelty and only later the crisis of the situation, wandered toward the foreign sight of smoke pouring from Nelson Hall, an unlikely hero was about to be made and God’s presence felt.

It was just past five o’clock. Wes McKey was going over some financial details with the academy's principal, Keith Hallam, when a student entered and exclaimed, “The dorm is on fire!” Keith immediately started toward the dorm. After entering another set of numbers into his computer, Wes stopped suddenly and realized that he, too, should see what could be done to help.

Wes hurried across campus, his mind racing. As the new vice principal for finance, this was not an ideal thing to have happen during one's first year. But while others' minds may have gone to calculating the inevitable monetary losses the school would soon face, his brain jumped to the individuals who might be in danger.

Approaching the dorm, he met the assistant dean, Melissa Howell, standing outside with the girls. He asked her if everyone was out. She shook her head. “I paged everyone and told them to get out, telling them this is not a drill.” Having repeatedly told the girls to exit the building as quickly as possible, Melissa finally returned to her office to grab a checksheet before smoke forced her to exit the dorm herself.

Outside, she turned to Wes. “I have no way of knowing how many girls were inside when the alarm sounded. At this time of day, some of them are in class, some of them are working…”

Spending little time contemplating his own well-being and thinking immediately of his own daughter, Wes realized he could not face a grieving parent and explain that he had stood outside and done nothing while their child lost her life inside.

Grabbing a fire extinguisher, he made his way to the third floor where the smoke would be the worst and girls would need the most assistance. He began systematically working his way down the hall, first banging on then breaking through doors in a final attempt to ensure that all occupants were safely outside.

Crouching low and coughing heavily as he neared the center of the dorm, he was forced to take gulps of air in each empty room he opened before braving the hall and another locked door. Finding no one, he retraced his steps down the hall, closing the doors he had just opened and checking that the fire doors were securely shut at the end.

On the second floor, the smoke was less oppressive, and he thought that perhaps the dorm could be saved. Then he realized that he, the person ultimately in charge of finances, would have to come up with the money necessary to replace the damage he was doing. After finding only empty rooms, he continued pounding insistently but stopped crashing through the doors.

As he neared the middle of the second floor, the smoke began to thicken, crowding his tall frame. He began feeling doors for heat, thinking again of his two-year-old daughter and his wife Rhonda and remembering that he had no idea where in the building the fire was located. Coming to the middle of the hall, he was gagging and coughing violently as he fumbled in the dark to close the fire doors. The air was hotter, and the hall held an orange glow, which he thought was a nightlight but later realized was probably the fire. At the time he didn't realize the fire was showing a much more threatening display of flame and destruction to the onlookers gathering outside.

Wes descended to the final level of the building, only half of which was used for personal living space. He continued his banging and yelling throughout the length of the hall until he ran into a hefty sheet of plastic blocking his way. Was it for construction? Assuming it was holding back the smoke, he decided to leave it in place and turned around.

He finished his mission sweaty, panting and gasping but nonetheless thankful he found no one. After leaving the building, Wes joined Ken Wileman, head of the maintenance department, to peer in the windows of the few rooms to which access had been blocked by the sheet of plastic.

God's help in the form of the assistant dean's clear and persistent manner, which convinced the girls to evacuate as soon as the alarm sounded, combined with the fact that there were very few girls in the dorm at that time of day, avoided a huge tragedy. As the girls were gathered and counted in the cafeteria, God was praised.

The next few days went by in a rush. The dorm, a complete loss, burned for many hours. While helping the head dean salvage items from her apartment before the dorm was completely taken down, Wes casually asked what had been going on in the basement to explain the plastic sheet. Kay Sanborn explained that she had been on that hall not more than half an hour before the fire started, and she was sure there was no construction.

Wes was immediately inundated with work, meetings and decisions that had to be made after this devastating event. It was not until weeks later that his curiosity reminded him of the plastic curtain. He saw Melissa, the assistant dean, at church and asked her if she knew anything about why the plastic had been hung there. She turned toward him with a confused expression. He told her how it had been a solid wall that effectively dissuaded him from continuing into what had become an inferno. He suggested that it must have been there for some kind of construction project.

Melissa shook her head. “There was no plastic,” she responded. She told him she had talked to some of the girls who lived on that floor, and they had come that very way to escape from the dorm. There had been no construction. There had been no plastic.

Wes will never know if what he saw that day was just an illusion caused by dim light, thick smoke and watery eyes or if angels' hands actually hung that sheet of plastic, so clearly visible and so permanently imprinted on his memory.

But all who hear the story have no doubt that God was at work on this campus. His angels were keeping in check smoldering wires, waking sleeping girls, giving deans clarity of mind and helping staff members remain calm. Some think those angels were even doing a little construction—you know, the kind that requires a huge sheet of plastic across a dorm hallway.

Heaven will only tell, and until then 81 girls will forever remember Wes McKey as their “guardian angel” and be reminded that God works in mysterious and wonderful ways.