Heat from one of the terrorist bombs that exploded at the Brussels airport on Tuesday seared second-degree burns into the skin of three Mormon missionaries feet from the blast.
The bomb also drove shrapnel into each of their legs. Eyewitnesses said the explosions burst windows, brought down ceilings and ruptured pipes.
Doctors have put one of the missionaries, Elder Richard J. Norby, 66, of Lehi, Utah, in a medically induced coma after surgery, and his family said Wednesday he faces a lengthy recovery from shrapnel injuries and second-degree burns to his head and neck as well as a more serious shrapnel wound to his lower leg.
The two young missionaries who were with Elder Norby near the bomb site have spoken to their families.
"Mom," said Elder Mason Wells, 19, when he woke up after surgery to repair his ruptured Achilles' tendon and called his mother in Sandy, Utah, "I was right by it."
Doctors also operated on the legs of his mission companion, Elder Joseph Dresden Empey, 20, of Santa Clara, Utah.
Those three Mormon elders and and a fourth missionary injured in the bombing are recovering from their injuries in Belgian hospitals. Their families and friends have begun to share the anxiety they felt when they first learned about the deadly attacks and the relief their missionaries shared with them over their survival.
"He sounded groggy, he sounded tired, he sounded a little disoriented, but he sounded relieved to be able to talk to us," Elder Wells' father, Chad Wells, told NBC News. "And it was great hearing his voice. It was a short call, but it was fabulous to be able to hear his voice and to know that he's OK, he's alive and that he will recover from his injuries."
Elder Norby was the president of the Ivory Coast Abidjan Mission from 2003-05. He also previously served as president of the Orem Utah College 1st Stake. Elder Norby worked in the LDS Church Educational System and retired as the assistant to the area director of the Utah Valley South area. His wife, Pamela J. Norby, is a former member of the Relief Society General Board.
Elder Norby was knocked to the ground by one of what investigators said may have been two suicide bombs detonated just before 8 a.m.
"After a lengthy surgery, he was placed in a medically induced coma," his family said in a statement, "and will remain in this state for the next few days, with a lengthy recovery expected. His wife, Pamela Norby, was not at the airport at the time of the attack and is supporting him during this challenging time.
"As his family, we wish to express our deep appreciation to his caring and competent medical staff and to all those who have expressed well-wishes and prayers on his behalf. We wish to express our love to the Paris, France, mission president, President Babin, his wife and the fine missionaries. Our prayers go out to all those who were affected by this terrible tragedy and wish for the speedy recovery of all the wounded bystanders."
A fourth missionary the three men brought to the airport, Sister Fanny Rachel Clain, 20, of Montélimar, France, had left the men and passed through security to catch a flight to the United States, where she was scheduled to begin her missionary service in the Ohio Cleveland Mission.
Sister Clain sustained minor burns and cuts.
All four had been serving in the France Paris Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Sister Clain had been awaiting a permanent visa for the United States, LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said.
The LDS Church's First Presidency released a statement Tuesday morning:
"With much of the world, we awoke this morning to the heartbreaking news of the bombings in Belgium. Our prayers are with the families of the deceased and injured, including three of our missionaries who were injured and hospitalized. We also pray for the people of Belgium and France as they continue to deal with the uncertainty and devastation caused by the recent terrorist attacks."
Who they are
Elder Wells and Elder Empey became companions on Feb. 17, when Elder Wells was assigned to Brussels.
Elder Wells graduated in 2014 from Lone Peak High School in Highland, Utah, where he was a member of the student council and played football and lacrosse and ran track. His family moved to Sandy two years ago.
Elder Empey graduated from Snow Canyon High School in St. George, Utah, in 2014. He played rugby. He was part of a group of 50 men from his high school class to leave on LDS missions at age 18 soon after graduation, said Kaleen Lambson-Talley, a secretary at the school.
The injuries to the three Utahns drew broad attention from American media outlets.
"This has been a difficult day for our family," Court and Amber Empey said in a statement, "and our hearts are broken for those injured or killed by the attacks in Belgium. We are grateful our son, Elder Joseph Dresden Empey, is alive and doing well. He has been treated for second-degree burns to his hands, face and head... We have been in touch with him, and he is grateful and in good spirits."
Elder Wells was calm and joking after the explosion, Elder Empey told his parents. Tuesday wasn't his first exposure to terrorism. Elder Wells was around the corner from the Boston Marathon finish line when the bombs went off there in April 2013. Last year, he was living outside Paris during the two terrorist bombings there.
Kymberly Wells had emailed her son on Monday to urge caution after the arrest of a terrorist a mile from where he and Elder Empey live.
"We were concerned because this was Mason's area," she said, "this is where he walked every day."
That heightened the family's concern when they learned about the attack at 5 a.m. on Tuesday.
"He feels blessed that he wasn’t injured more, given his close proximity to the bomb," the Wells family said in a statement. "As a family, we feel the power of prayer from those we know and those who only heard Mason’s name for the first time today. We will continue to pray and hope for everyone affected by this tragedy."
France Paris Mission President Frederic J. Babin asked all of the missionaries in France and Belgium to remain in their apartments for the rest of the day.
"Since what happened in Paris last year," he said, "we have been working with all the missionaries on safety rules for them to be safe, wherever they are, in Belgium or in France."
President Babin said the missionaries would continue to preach the gospel.
Chad Wells shared a similar thought.
"Mason was out there to share a message of hope and peace and harmony, the message of Christ. Peace and love and harmony can overcome all. They were out there and serving and giving that message when this happened, and they are not going to stop."
It is unknown whether the attacks will impact the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's scheduled European tour this summer. The choir is scheduled to perform in Brussels on July 11.
The LDS Church News featured the Norbys in an article about attending general conference in 2009.
President Babin had assigned Elder Norby to implement the LDS Church's new "My Plan" program in the Paris Mission. The program is designed to strengthen returning full-time missionaries and provide them with a post-mission plan. Missionaries begin to set goals in the program prior to arriving at a Missionary Training Center.
President Babin, who began serving as mission president in July 2014, also has a Utah tie. He served in the Utah Salt Lake City South Mission as a young man. His wife, Sister Marie-Françoise Babin, served a mission in Brussels.
Several Utah political leaders released statements condemning the attacks and expressing support for the killed and wounded.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah:
"My heart goes out to all those who were killed and injured in this morning’s horrific terrorist attacks in Brussels. An attack like this is an attack on all of western civilization, a truth highlighted by the fact that three missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were injured in the blasts. My prayers are with the victims, their families, and everyone touched by this tragedy."
Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert:
"Jeanette and I, along with the 3 million residents of Utah, are absolutely heartbroken to learn of this terrible tragedy. We are again reminded that the world we live in is a dangerous place, a place where the War on Terror has never ceased. We join with the rest of the world at this time in mourning for the people of Belgium.
"It is not uncommon for innocent victims to be targeted in these terrorist attacks, but seldom do we see people of faith who have forsaken everything — family, friends, school and careers — in order to share a message of hope and love with the world also fall victim. To the Norby, Empey and Wells families, please know that the state of Utah is united in prayer at this time for the health and well-being of your missionaries. As Utahns, we stand together with our fellow Americans and those around the world in our resolve to put an end to these acts of terror."
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, a member of the House Intelligence Committee:
“I’m heartbroken and angry to learn of the terrorist attacks in Brussels. My thoughts and prayers are with those we’ve lost, their families and the first responders. But we have to realize the challenge we are facing. Far too many seek to kill us, destroy our values, and take away our basic freedoms. Now more than ever, it’s critical that we implement a real plan to stop the spread of global terrorism to prevent future attacks.
"I’ll be working with my colleagues on the House Intelligence Committee to continue monitoring the situation and develop appropriate responses."
Email: [email protected]