One minute, Aaron Neal was eating candy and throwing the empty wrappers at his three buddies; the next minute, he was lying on the floor of the van, clutching his stomach and moaning, "Stop the car, I've been shot."
It was the last thing anyone had expected. But what happened during the next 24 hours also was unexpected.The 14-year-old boy from Moreland, Idaho, lived - despite the fact that a major vein was torn by the bullet that shot through Aaron's stomach and intestines and lodged in his back near his spine.
"Everyone has told us that he should have died," Aaron's mother, Joye Neal, said. "It's a miracle that he's even here."
The series of events leading to Aaron's survival are, in fact, miraculous, agreed Steve Dance, the Young Men president in the Moreland 5th Ward and driver of the van that Aaron was riding in on that Oct. 1 night.
Dance and the four young men were on their way home from Salt Lake City after attending the priesthood session of general conference. It was almost 11 p.m. and the group was 10 miles from Malad (in southeastern Idaho) when Dance passed a car that was traveling slowly.
"I heard an explosion and I looked back. I thought maybe a tire had blown out," Dance remembered. "When Aaron fell to the floor, I thought he was kidding at first. It wasn't until after I got out and saw the bullet hole in the back of the van that I realized he really had been shot. . . . At that point, a lot of coincidences started happening."
Dance went back to check on Aaron. While he was looking for the bullet wound, a second van pulled over to the side of the road. Bishop Robert Smith of the Blackfoot 10th Ward and the ward's Young Men president, Robert Brown, had also attended the priesthood session with some of the young men in their ward. They recognized Dance's van and stopped to see if anyone needed help. The ward's assistant priest quorum adviser, Charles Posegate, was following in a second car with his family, including his wife Carolyn, who happened to be a nurse. They also pulled over.
"It all happened so fast, but I knew that we had to get Aaron to a hospital," Dance said. While Sister Posegate gave Aaron first aid, Dance and Bishop Smith administered to the boy. In the blessing, Dance promised Aaron that he would stay alive until he could get medical attention.
Aaron doesn't remember a lot of what happened, but he does remember that blessing. "At first I thought I was going to die," he said. "I couldn't believe this had happened to me and I was scared. But after the blessing I knew I'd be all right until I got to the hospital."
"The interesting thing is that there was no loss of blood at this point," Dance explained, "even though we found out later the bullet had torn the vena cava, a major vein. But when we got to the hospital at Malad, Aaron started bleeding. The miracle to me was that they said he should have died within two minutes from the time he was shot with that kind of damage."
It took almost 30 minutes from the time Aaron was shot before he got to Malad. From there, Aaron was flown by helicopter to Bannock Regional Medical Center in Pocatello, Idaho, where his anxious parents were waiting.
"We had just gone to bed when Brother Dance called," said Aaron's father, Gary Neal. "He was the last person I expected to hear from. All the way to the Pocatello hospital, we were just praying that he'd be alright."
When Aaron got to Pocatello, it was about 1 a.m. Sunday morning. Aaron was given a second blessing by his father before he was whisked away to spend the next six hours in surgery, where the blood clot that had formed around the bullet wound would burst and Aaron would receive 10 pints of blood and surprise everyone by surviving.
"They came out of surgery several times and told us they didn't think he would make it," Neal remembered. "I was very concerned, very worried. But there was a point during surgery where I just knew he would be okay."
And Aaron was okay. Two weeks after he was rolled out of surgery, Aaron went home from the hospital - weeks earlier than doctors originally estimated. "The doctor has been very, very pleased with his progress," said Sister Neal. "He's been up and walking around and eating. It's been great."
The support the family has felt from friends, ward members and others has also been great. Phone calls from the office of the First Presidency and from Elder Rex Reeve of the First Quorum of the Seventy were just two of the many well-wishers who called to tell the Neals that Aaron was in their prayers.
Neal gets a little emotional when he talks of the outpouring of love and concern. "It's been fantastic. Even people we didn't know called and offered help and support."
It was the support of others that helped the Neals begin to accept what had happened to their son.
"I couldn't believe this had happened," Sister Neal explained. "I mean, I had sent my son with a church group and he was doing what he should be doing. But a good brother helped me understand why things like this happen.
"He said that we all have our free agency and the Lord must allow wicked people to make unrighteous choices. But then, after they do, the Lord takes care of the righteous." Three teenage suspects were arrested and face charges in the shooting.
Sister Neal is grateful her son is alive. "I really feel the Lord was taking care of Aaron. From what I understand, he should have died."
"The whole circumstances behind this is just one miraculous thing after another," Neal agreed. "There were many people who were at the right time and place. There is just no way it all could have happened on its own.