Elder Norby awakes from coma, families provide updates about injured missionaries
Courtesy of Norby family
SALT LAKE CITY — After the suicide bombs in the Brussels airport shredded his body with shrapnel and burned his skin, Elder Richard Norby, a 66-year-old Mormon missionary from Lehi, Utah, managed to call his wife.
He was lucid as he told her about the explosions and that he had a broken leg and burns on his face. "I wasn’t totally composed," Sister Pamela Norby told NBC News on Saturday.
"Pam," Elder Norby told her on the phone, "something's wrong. Just listen carefully, Pam, listen carefully."
She asked him if he was able to see the three missionaries who had gone with him to the airport so one could catch a flight. When he said no, her heart dropped. "I just needed to know where those young missionaries were because we love them and they're part of our family."
Then the phone went dead. The next time she saw him, he was in a medically induced coma. Doctors brought him out of the coma Saturday night.
The bloody, painful and harrowing experiences of the four missionaries wounded in the terrorist attack on Tuesday came into clearer view on Saturday with the first public statement by Sister Norby and the first interview with one of the other wounded missionaries, Elder Joseph Empey, 20, as well as fresh interviews with the missionaries' families.
They also provided new information about their medical conditions.
Elder Norby awoke and interacted with family members in his hospital room, according to a Facebook post.
"We asked him to open his eyes if he could hear us," his son Jason Norby wrote. "With all the energy our father, husband and friend could muster, he lifted his head as high as he could off of the bed and very deliberately turned his head to our direction. We burst into sobs of joy and tears filled our masks."
Sister Norby hadn't reached him Tuesday until after doctors placed him in the coma to allow his body to relax and heal from the severe leg injuries. The development added to the Norby family's anticipation of an Easter celebration, Sister Norby said.
"To do it with family in this situation and friends and members of our church stake and feeling united with everyone, I think everyone will take an opportunity to make this a great celebration."
After the dropped call, Sister Norby and members of the Brussels congregations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spent hours scrambling to find her husband and the other missionaries in local hospitals. The four missionaries were taken to four different local hospitals around the Belgian capital.
The Norbys have served together since September as a senior missionary in the France Paris Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Normally, she goes everywhere with him, but this time there had been no room for her in the car.
On Saturday, the families of all four had arrived in Brussels.
Elder Empey, who is from Santa Clara, Utah, is still in the hospital. He has gauze or heavy bandaging on his head and both hands for burns and on both legs for burns and shrapnel wounds.
"I'm doing awesome," he told NBC News in his first public interview. "I'm feeling good."
His father, Court Empey, told NBC News his son will need more surgery next week.
"But he's healing and I think he's going to have a full recovery and be able to play guitar and snowboard and do some of the things athletically he likes to do, so we're really hopeful for a full recovery."
The four missionaries apparently were standing together at the back of the Delta check-in line when shrapnel and flames from the first explosion struck them.
Sister Norby said doctors found shrapnel wounds up to 2 inches on Elder Norby's neck, back, hip and legs. They told her it was a blessing he wasn't turned toward the explosions because the metal would have sheared vital organs. Still, he suffered a broken left fibula and left heel and second-degree burns to his face, ears, sides of his head, leg and the backs of his hands.
Elder Empey said the blast knocked him unconscious.
"I just remember I opened my eyes and I saw lots of people laying around on the floors, it was pretty tragic. It was really scary. I just remember thoughts coming to me that, 'This is really happening, this is really a bomb.'"
His mother, Amber, said Elder Empey then searched for his mission companion, Elder Mason Wells, 19, of Sandy, Utah, as well as Elder Norby and Sister Fanny Clain, the 20-year-old Frenchwoman they'd brought to the airport so she could fly to her missionary assignment in Ohio. As he searched for them, something felt wrong and he hid behind a pillar.
"He was aware of what was going on enough to know to be scared and to protect himself, and that's just heartbreaking," Amber Empey said. "I don’t know why that hit me so much."
Elder Empey was then able to find his friends. He found his mission companion of five weeks, Elder Wells, standing in a pool of blood and told him to lie down, Elder Wells' mother Kymberly told UV360.
Elder Wells said he remembers lying in the pool of blood, and doctors told his parents he had significant blood loss. A passerby put a suitcase under Elder Wells' bloody ankles, and Elder Empey gave his companion an priesthood blessing that he would return home whole.
Sister Norby reached Elder Empey on a phone. He said he'd found and been able to check up on Elder Wells, Elder Norby and Sister Clain. Then he told Sister Norby that first-responders were putting Elder Norby on a stretcher, and that he needed to go.
That's when Sister Norby's search began.
"It was a really long day, but once we found him it was better, and they were being well taken care of," she said.
Emergency personnel triaged the victims with colored lanyards. Elder Wells was worse off, so the companions got different colors and were taken to separate hospitals.
Elder Wells has done video interviews — with his head and nearly his entire face covered by gauze — with at least seven American and European news agencies, including CNN, the New York Times, NBC's Today Show and Fox News.
"My faith is something that, my whole life, has sustained me," he told ABC News.
His said doctors expect him to be hospitalized for a couple of weeks. He needed surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles' tendon. His mother told UV360 he has a large open wound on his ankle that needs a skin graft. His right hand and the right side of his head near his ear are badly burned, though he said doctors don't expect the burns to leave scars.
She said he has suffered horrible pain.
Court Empey called the attacks and their son's ordeal heartbreaking and "the most difficult time of our lives," but said the reunion this weekend with their son was unforgettable.
"It's amazing," Amber Empey said. "To walk in to see his cute smile and eyes and excited and thankful to see us. It was the greatest moment to see him... . He just is on the mend, and we just couldn’t be more grateful that he's alive and that he's healing."
Sister Clain was serving in the Paris Mission until she could obtain her visa to the United States. Her father Thierry and her former mission companion, Sister Haylie VanDenBerghe, visited her in the hospital on Saturday. She had surgery on Thursday to remove shrapnel and is recovering from second-degree burns. She gave an interview to a French TV outlet.
Back in the United States, the Norbys' children and grandchildren worried after they learned Elder Norby's injuries were worse than a broken knee or leg and some slight burns.
"Very grateful," said Jason Norby, who flew to Belgium to be with his mother at his father's side. "Especially this time of year — Good Friday, Easter season — it's good to see something positive, and come what may we're grateful for all of the many tender mercies, the blessings we've received through this difficult time."
Sister Norby said Elder Norby is very stable, but will need "many more" surgeries before she can bring him home to Utah. They had a year left in their 18-month mission call.
"We'll serve some other way," Sister Norby said. "It'll be OK."
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