Surviving the typhoon: Fear, faith and miracles for 10 LDS sister missionaries trapped in the Philippines
Ravell Call, Deseret News
EDITOR'S NOTE: Deseret News journalist Jesse Hyde and photojournalist Ravell Call are in the Philippines and will file dispatches throughout the week about the recovery efforts underway following Typhoon Haiyan.
MANILA, Philippines — The water was rising fast.
In the darkness of early morning, Amanda Smith moved away from the window to shield her face from the slashing rain. She had shut it just moments before to ward off the raging storm whipping through the palm trees outside.
But now the wind had ripped it open, and the wooden shutters were slamming violently against the wall again and again. Sister Smith, an LDS missionary from Elk Ridge, Utah, couldn’t see anything outside, but she could smell the sea, which seemed to be getting closer and closer. They had to get out of here.
She had heard about the storm three days before, from a driver of a pedicab. It was typhoon season, and tropical storms were common in the Philippines. Still, the last storm warning had produced nothing but blue skies. Some of the missionaries wondered if this time would be any different.
There were nine missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with her in the house, a two-story structure made of cement blocks. They were young women from Utah and Alaska and the Philippines, all about her own age, 19. They had done what they could to prepare, hastily assembling 72-hour kits, and had even bought candles and rope, just like their mission president had asked, even though no one in the house thought either would be necessary.
Now, as water roared down the streets toward them, Sister Smith realized no preparations were too small. The worst storm in generations had just hit landfall.
Bracing for the worst
More than 300 miles to the north, in an apartment in the capital of Manila, Elder Ian S. Ardern sat watching CNN. A former mission president with salt and pepper hair and an easy smile, he couldn’t help but feel a looming sense of dread about what was unfolding. On the screen, the typhoon churned, a monster on a path no one could stop. Winds would eventually reach 200 miles per hour.
As first counselor in the Philippine Area Presidency, Elder Ardern worried directly about the 675,000 LDS Church members living in the Philippines, particularly the thousands living in the eye of the storm in and around a city of 235,000 called Tacloban, as well as the entire population.
A native of New Zealand, he had seen his fair share of typhoons, and knew firsthand their destructive power. He hoped the members, and the young missionaries, had heeded the call to prepare.
Days before the storm hit, his office had been sending out warnings to the 21 mission presidents in the Philippines, with maps regularly updating and charting the course of the typhoon. Prepare emergency kits, they had advised. And get to a safe place, which for many members meant a chapel.
The area presidency had asked each of the mission presidents to call in when the storm subsided to report damages and the status of their missionaries. Elder Ardern watched the news as the sun began to rise over the Philippines and waited for the first phone call to come in. He braced for the worst.
Sister Smith had always wanted to be a missionary, ever since she was a little girl growing up in Minnesota, toting her scriptures to Primary, learning to play hymns like “I am a Child of God” on the piano. She’d put in her mission papers as soon as she turned 19.
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.
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.
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.
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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