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En route to Brussels, injured Mormon missionary's parents describe first phone call

Court and Amber Empey of Santa Clara, Utah, didn’t know that if their cellphones hadn't been set to Do Not Disturb, they would have been ringing for hours. Later, when they woke up with the sky and the home phone began to ring, they assumed it was just the beginning of another endless day of political surveys and robocalls.

Shortly after 6 a.m., with their smartphones awake, an international number popped up that they instantly recognized as European. It was their son, Elder Joseph Empey, calling from a hospital in Brussels. In his trademark all-is-well way, the young man announced what the world was also discovering — terrorists had struck at the Brussels Airport.

“He was so positive,” Empey’s mother, Amber, said during a phone call from Salt Lake Airport’s International terminal. Empey and her husband will arrive in Brussels Friday afternoon. “He said he was calling from a hospital with burns on his face, head and hands. He had shrapnel in his feet and potentially a fractured ankle. But he was so optimistic.”

As widely reported, Elder Empey, Elder Mason Wells, Elder Richard Norby and Sister Fanny Rachel Clain, who are serving as missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were all injured during the blast that killed 31 and injured more than 300 others.

Although the Empeys believe nothing prepares missionary parents for that kind of phone call, it wasn’t until the call ended that they understood the scope and magnitude of the morning. “As soon as we hung up, we went online and that’s when it hit us. We couldn’t believe what we read," Amber Empey said.

Later in the morning, a nurse emailed the Empeys photos of their son in his hospital bed. “I was scared,” his mother said. “And yet as I’m realizing more and more how serious this was, hearing about burns, surgeries and at least a 10-day hospital stay, there he was in photos with a smile on his face.”

Over a series of calls, the young missionary with just three months remaining before his mission concludes shared his firsthand account of the moments before and after the blast.

“He told us he was there with Elder Wells and Elder Norby to drop off the sister coming to America," she said. "They had wanted to use the electronic ticket station but it wasn’t working, so they went to wait in a long line that snaked back and forth. Then after a few minutes, it happened and (Empey) blacked out. He doesn’t know how long he was unconscious but when he came to, he just started running to find the others. He found Elder Wells first and he was bleeding quite a bit. He gave him a blessing on the spot.”

Empey moved on and when he reunited with Norby, his parents said he gave him a blessing, too. By the time they found Clain, Empey reported to his parents that the adrenaline was gone and the pain set in.

"He could tell the foot was worse than he thought and he couldn’t walk," Amber Empey said. "So he calmed down and waited for the ambulance.”

Choking on emotion, Empey’s father expressed the family’s gratitude for the survival of all four missionaries, and the heartbreak at the many other families having very different conversations in the aftermath of the blast. “We know how fortunate they are," Court Empey said. "He said that they estimated they were about 30 feet away from the explosion. Yes there will probably be more surgeries and time in the hospital, but he’s alive.”

Court Empey paused when asked to describe how it felt to have people of all faiths around the world praying for his son and others injured in the attacks.

“It’s overwhelming," he said. "To see how much love there is in the world, it reminds us that God truly is our Heavenly Father. It’s why strangers feel sympathy and empathy for one another. It’s because we really are brothers and sisters with eternal relationships.”

According to Empey, this example of extraordinary love in the world outweighs all the evil. “It’s interesting, isn’t it? From this horrible act comes so much goodness.” The family believes no amount of hate will ever defeat the will of the Lord.

As they began to board the first of three flights to their son’s bedside, Empey expressed gratitude for his son’s missionary service. “He said on the phone that he would not change it," Court Empey said. "This has been a great time in his life to serve, forget himself and learn more about the Savior. His mission has enhanced everything about him and he is so grateful for every day.”

His father added that over his final three months, he believes his son will continue to grow from every experience, including that tragic Tuesday morning moment.

“Also, please tell your readers we are so thankful for their prayers and support," Court Empey said. "We pray for you, too, especially all missionaries everywhere as they spread Christ’s message of joy and peace.”

Jason Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars" and "The Wednesday Letters." Learn more at jasonfwright.com, or connect on Facebook at facebook.com/jfwbooks or by email at jfw@deseretnews.com.