Surviving the typhoon: Fear, faith and miracles for 10 LDS sister missionaries trapped in the Philippines
She had been excited to go to the Philippines. But in some ways, she seemed too delicate for this place, with her long, willowy build and fine porcelain skin. The Philippines wasn’t exactly clean, and some things had taken getting used to — rice for every meal, the choking smell of exhaust on the clogged streets, cold showers from a bucket. But she had also fallen in love with the place — the sweet smell of mangos, the effervescence of the people, the way the language of Waray-Waray had started to roll off the tongue.
One day she sat down on a stool to teach a lesson in a dirt-floor shack and out of nowhere three fuzzy chicks materialized and walked around her legs, the way birds landed on Cinderella’s shoulder, and she thought: What is this magical place?
She had been out five months, her latest area called San Jose, where some of Tacloban’s richest and poorest residents live, some in nice apartments, others in shacks of bamboo and cardboard, a tarp stained by the smoke of cooking fires the only thing passing for a roof, roosters and stray dogs running at their feet.
San Jose sits right on the sea, and so a few days before the storm, just to be safe, the mission president’s assistants (two young men, elders who help the president) asked her and her companion to come farther inland, which is where she was now, with nine other sister missionaries, in a house quickly filling with a black, mucky water.
As the storm worsened, she could feel the house shaking, metal poles outside snapping, animals howling and squealing.
At first, the sisters had all gathered in one central room on the second floor, thinking it the safest place in the house. But the water was now rising to their knees. Metal bars covered every window, preventing an escape outside. With no other choice they would have to go to the first floor, where the water nearly reached the ceiling, and try to open the front door to get out.
They knew the current could pull them out into the ocean, but if they stayed where they were now, they would drown in what had essentially become a box of cement walls.
One by one the sisters slipped into the freezing water on the first floor. A few couldn’t swim; they held tight to their companions. Some of the women started to cry.
Sister Smith was scared too, but she was determined not to let it show. She wanted to stay calm for the others.
The front door was locked with a metal latch on the bottom and the top. One of the sisters dived under the water and unlocked the bottom latch; another reached the top and did the same. But when they tried to open the door it wouldn’t budge. The water pressing from the outside and inside had sealed it shut.
What had been ebbing as a low level panic reached hysteria for some of the sisters, who began weeping and sobbing. Sister Smith could feel the panic rising in her chest too, but she had to stay calm. With a few of the other sisters who had become leaders of the group, she started to sing hymns, their voices muted by the stinky water rising to their chins. They quoted scripture. They prayed. Sister Smith put on a brave face, not daring to say aloud what she was thinking:
“I never thought this is where my life would end.”
As the storm subsided, the phone in Elder Ardern’s office started to ring. One by one, the presidents of the 21 missions in the Philippines called in, reporting that all their missionaries were safe and accounted for. Except for one. The president from the Tacloban mission never called.
As Elder Ardern waited, the phone rang. Parents from Idaho and Texas called in, frantic for news of their children. The wives of the area presidency took most of the calls, assuring parents that as soon as they had word they’d let them know the status of their missionary children.
More than 24 hours passed and the area presidency still hadn’t heard any word on the status of the 204 Tacloban missionaries. Elder Ardern was pacing when an email finally came in from the mission president. The 38 missionaries in the city of Tacloban were safe. He had negotiated with local government officials to send an email on the only functioning Internet portal in town. As soon as he found the rest of his missionaries he’d be in touch, he promised.
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