National Edition

Surviving the typhoon: Fear, faith and miracles for 10 LDS sister missionaries trapped in the Philippines

Published: Saturday, Nov. 16 2013 5:40 p.m. MST

Updated: Friday, April 4 2014 10:07 p.m. MDT

Cell service was still impossible, and would be for days, if not weeks. Elder Ardern was relieved, but also worried about the rest of the mission.

The area presidency dispatched every church employee in Cebu and Manila — security and building maintenance and church welfare and others — to go to Tacloban to search for members. They would travel the six hours from Cebu to Tacloban to count survivors, return to Cebu to find a working phone or Internet connection to make a report to church headquarters in Manila, and then head back out in to the wreckage to find more survivors and help.

In one Mormon congregation alone, 95 percent of the members saw their homes destroyed. Scores had lost family members, many carried out to sea with the current, never to return.

Praying for a miracle

The sister missionaries worked together. Sister Schaap punched a hole through an opening in a flimsy wall, and the group of 10 swam through the murky water that would soon carry their journals and clothes and pots and pans out to sea. Those who couldn’t swim clung tightly to their companions.

The sisters used the rope to reach a nearby roof. Sister Smith stood on the rain gutter, the other nine sister missionaries shivering beside her, the rain still coming down in sheets. Hours had passed since the beginning of the storm, and yet the sky above Tacloban was still gray, shrouded by fog.

Sister Smith said thoughts of dying left her mind. But some of the sisters appeared pale and their bodies were shaking. The water was still rising and they feared it would engulf them.

One of the sisters suggested they pray. They huddled closely together, bowed their heads, and with the rain dripping down their chins, asked God to make the water stop. And then, in what Sister Smith could only describe as the greatest miracle of her life, the sea stopped rising.

Rescue

By the time Elder Ardern arrived in Tacloban four days after the storm, the water had receded, leaving a putrid scene of destruction in its wake. Bloated bodies lay exposed on the sides of the road, some covered by a blanket, or rusty corrugated roofing, others by a moldy piece of cardboard. The stench was sickening.

At one point, the city had tried to conduct a mass burial for 200, but had turned its trucks around when they heard gunfire.

The city had descended into chaos and lawlessness. Survivors of the typhoon had broken into stores that hadn’t been flattened to steal televisions and toys, food, even light fixtures, despite the fact that there was no electricity.

Hours after the storm, the president’s two assistants had made the walk from the mission home to the house where the sisters had been staying. The house was destroyed but they had to kick through the door to get inside. When they found no one, they feared the worse, a sense that only heightened when a neighbor told them they’d seen four sisters leaving for a nearby elementary school.

“There were supposed to be 10,” one of the elders said.

They found all 10 at a nearby elementary school, and soon learned the story of the escape from the house and the hours spent on the roof, praying for someone to find them.

With the sisters now accounted for, the assistants and other missionaries assigned to the mission office fanned out through the city, trying to find the rest of their mission force. A dense cloud cover prevented even satellite phones from working, meaning the missionaries had no way to communicate with missionaries serving in outlying areas.

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