Surviving the typhoon: Fear, faith and miracles for 10 LDS sister missionaries trapped in the Philippines
But these missionaries, they said guided by the spirit and survival instincts, made their way to the mission home. Some walked for four hours. Others hitched a ride on a motorcycle, relying on the kindness of strangers unsure how to feed their own children. One group of missionaries cobbled together more than a thousand dollars and made their way to Tacloban by boat. All 204 missionaries were now accounted for.
The two assistants to the president, one from Dallas and the other from Fiji, stayed with the 10 sisters and others at the mission home, supporting each other, especially at night when gunshots rang out.
With their own food running low, the assistants, under the direction of their mission president, decided they had to make their way to the airport. So before dawn, four days after the storm but again in pouring rain, they headed out with their flashlights pointing the way through the darkness.
“It was the hardest thing,” said one of the assistants. “People had gotten so hungry they had begun to attack each other. The worst part was the smell, the stench of death.”
Some sisters, their feet blistered, could barely walk. The looting had become more severe, and the missionaries had heard rumors that prisoners at the jail, which had lost its electricity and its guards, had simply walked out. The assistants stood at the front and back of the long line of missionaries — dozens and dozens — as they made the long march to the airport.
As they walked, Elder Ardern tried to arrange a flight out. He had booked flights in Manila, but thousands of other survivors had mobbed the Tacloban airport. The ticket agent told him if he wanted a flight out, he’d have to pay more to get his 204 missionaries to safety.
As Elder Ardern tried other options, the missionaries milled about what was left of the airport terminal, its walls blasted out by the gale force winds of the storm. And then, a final miracle.
An Army sergeant with a C-130 airplane, assigned by the U.S. government to fly Americans out of the disaster area, said he had a feeling he should walk through the terminal one more time. As he did, he saw out of the corner of his eye what looked like the nametag of a Mormon missionary. The sergeant, a Mormon himself, asked if the missionary was American. When he said he was, the sergeant told him he could arrange flights out for all the Americans and foreigners in his C-130.
Before the day had ended, many of the missionaries Elder Ardern had come for were flying out of Tacloban. By week’s end, all of the missionaries in the area would be evacuated to Manila, where they would await a new assignment in other missions in the Philippines.
The Road Ahead
It’s a Saturday afternoon in Manila, a week after the storm, the air hot and sticky. Sister Amanda Smith and the nine other survivors are sitting on a bench on the well-manicured grounds of the Philippine Missionary Training Center, talking to a television crew from New York. Their story of survival and resistance will inspire millions, they are told.
Still, it is hard for most of them to talk about their experience, and the things they saw. They said night terrors awake them. And so, just as they did during the storm, they sing hymns and say quiet prayers, hoping for peace, and an ability to leave behind the terror of what they witnessed.
And yet, there is a part of them that wishes they could go back, to help those members and non-members alike, who are still stuck. They are comforted to know that the church has never stopped searching for those that are lost, and that in the coming weeks church officials, from Salt Lake and throughout the Philippines, will continue to push food and medical supplies, blankets and tents, into the areas most affected by the typhoon, to provide relief to Filipinos, whether they are Mormons or not, part of a rescue operation that includes dozens of non-governmental organziations (NGO's), faith groups and governments from around the world.
When the interview with the TV crew is over, Sister Smith and the other sisters hurry to a parking lot, where the missionaries evacuated from Tacloban are boarding vans that will take them to their new area. They hug and cry, bonded by a tragedy they never saw coming, but one they were surprisingly prepared for.
For many, their missions are just beginning.
“It was such a terrible thing we witnessed,” Sister Smith said. “But I learned so much about how people will come together to help others, expecting nothing in return. I saw that from other missionaries, and I saw that from the Philippine people. It’s a lesson I hope I never forget.”
Watch this and other stories about Typhoon Haiyan on KSL.com.
Those who wish to donate to the LDS Church's humanitarian aid effort may contribute at give.lds.org/response.
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