clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How Belgian Mormons rallied together in the minutes, hours and days after the Brussels bombings

The fog of war quickly swallowed up four Mormon missionaries after bomb blasts badly burned them and strafed their bodies with shrapnel in the international departure hall at the Brussels airport on March 22.

Two of them managed short phone calls soon after the explosions at 7:58 a.m. Both said they were hurt but OK.

Then cell service collapsed, and the four missionaries disappeared for hours.

The idea the missionaries were fine began to fall apart with a Facebook post at about 10 a.m. Elder Richard Norby, 66, had made one of those two precious calls to his wife, Sister Pam Norby. Now the post alerted members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Belgium that she didn't know where her wounded husband was.

"That was really unusual," Brussels Belgium Stake President Pierre Kahne said. "The Norbys are a good, close couple. He had thought of her first. He's not the kind of person who would let hours go by without telling his wife. We decided to look for him and all the missionaries."

The city was on lockdown, but local church members and leaders began to mobilize by landline, text, email and Facebook from wherever they were, at work at the European Parliament, at their homes or in a university lecture hall. They searched for each missionary and for every church member, and they prayed and fasted for and served each other for the next five days, until an Easter Sunday none of them will ever forget. The bombs that changed the missionaries' lives forever also changed their friends in Brussels.

Apprehensive search

Francesco Di Lillo learned about the airport bombing on the train to work. At work, the head of the LDS Church's European Union Office learned that the very same train line had been the target of a third explosion. Then the church's Europe Area security manager called to ask him to help the missionaries.

Di Lillo called the Brussels crisis center but learned nothing. Kahne, who speaks French, tried next, but staff at the center said it was too early, the names of victims were just starting to come in. Kahne reached a counterterrorism expert he knows because their children attend school together. The expert's advice was to call hospitals.

So a group of Mormons and their friends began to call all the hospitals in Brussels, Antwerp and Leuven.

"Finally," Kahne said, "one said, 'Yes, we have Elder Norby. He just arrived, he's injured but alive.' It was a great relief. I called Sister Norby, and she was relieved to know where he was."

Anxiety mounted again when one hospital said it had two unidentified bodies, a male and a female. Kahne asked, "Are they young?"

"We don't know," came the answer. "We can't tell."

Fortunately, by noon the searchers had found Elder Joseph Dresden Empey, 20, and Sister Fanny Clain, 20, injured but alive.

More hours passed, however, with no sign of Elder Mason Wells, 19. The search was complicated because doctors were transferring the wounded based on hospital specialties. And overcrowding. One hospital with eight emergency beds received 130 wounded.

"At some point I called my wife and said, 'You know what, I wonder if he's still alive,'" Kahne said. "It sounded terrible, because we knew Elder Empey had seen him and talked to him after the explosion at the airport, but that moment was so stressful, you wonder if the worst has happened."

Finally, at about 5 p.m., they found Wells, again injured but alive.

The saga wasn't over. At 8 p.m. Kahne fielded a call from a member of the Relief Society, the church's women's organization. "Where is Sister Clain?" the caller asked. "The hospital in Brussels let her go."

Kahne worried she was lost somewhere under medication. The calls resumed. The searchers finally found her again at a hospital in Antwerp.

In all, Kahne spent two days tracking hospital transfers.

"It was really madness," Kahne said.

Relief in action

The ward councils of the LDS Church's two congregations in the city, the Brussels Grimbergen Ward and Brussels Centre Ward, went into action soon after the explosions. The Grimbergen bishop asked Relief Society president Barbie Curtis to have the visiting teachers locate all the women in the ward to ensure their families were safe.

Curtis relied most on email and texts and Facebook's safety-check feature, which allows users in an emergency area to mark themselves safe.

"As people clicked the safe button, we knew we could count them as accounted for," said Curtis, a Salt Lake City native who has lived in Belgium for three-and-a-half years.

Members of the ward councils, with Di Lillo as a member of the Grimbergen Ward bishopric among them, updated each other via email to reduce duplicate contacting. By about 3 p.m., Kahne knew all church members in Brussels were safe and unharmed.

"Then the second outpouring of love happened," Di Lillo said. "Church members went and offered their phones to the missionaries so they could call their parents. They went to offer their emotional and spiritual support. We as members of the church were there to tell them they were loved."

Among them was Centre Ward Relief Society president, Paula Da Silva. She heard about the two explosions at the airport from her husband, an aircraft maintenance worker, while she was preparing for a meeting at the European Parliament. The train bomb exploded near the building, and she wasn't allowed to leave until 4 p.m.

"I went home and with my husband we prayed for our missionaries, for everyone affected by the attacks and for their families," Da Silva said. "We also asked to know what to do and to be able to see them."

The Da Silvas then went to see the Norbys in the hospital. Sister Norby greeted them "with her smile and the big spirit we are accustomed to," then asked to accompany them to see Empey.

That night, Da Silva prayed again for the missionaries, for the other victims, for their families, for her family and for her son on a mission in Amsterdam. Then she prepared an emergency plan. She appointed herself Sister Norby's driver. Church members volunteered to prepare meals and provide visits to all of the missionaries for the next two weeks.

You're not alone

The next day, Da Silva and two sister missionaries drove Norby to the hospital and then visited all of the injured missionaries.

"All of them were calm, worried about the others, and all of them said the same," Da Silva said. "'Despite what happened, my mission was the best decision of my life.' They are young but strong in their testimonies."

The next several days were full ones for the missionaries. "Everybody wanted to help," Kahne said.

"Couples or small groups visited the missionaries," Di Lillo said, "so they would not be left alone to go through the aftermath without any comfort. It really felt like being a member of a family. I learned that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not just a church you belong to on Sunday, but a church where you belong to a family."

Every time Di Lillo went to visit a missionary, he found ward members filling the hospital room. At Elder Norby's hospital, he found six people in the waiting room, waiting for those with Elder Norby to leave so they could visit him and his family.

Children made drawings for them. The wards and stakes in the France Paris Mission fasted and prayed. The president of the neighboring mission allowed one of Empey's childhood friends to visit while Empey waited for his family to arrive.

"In the meantime," Kahne said, "he had somebody he knew and loved who could take care of him. We are not strangers, but we are not as close to him as a best friend."

Clain said the visitors kept her occupied for several days until her father arrived from Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean.

Di Lillo was there when Chad and Kymberly Wells arrived at the hospital to be reunited with Mason. He was there when Empey's parents, Court and Amber, arrived at his bedside.

"I've seen many reunions when missionaries return home," he said. "These were sweet. They were the hugs of an eternal family. These parents had not seen their sons in nearly two years. Having this happen at this time in their mission in these circumstances, it was a sacred experience."

Easter at home

A 21-year-old medical student named Kevin Wendo was in an auditorium awaiting a lecture at the Catholic University of Louvain when word about the first bombs filtered into the hall. Classes were canceled for two days.

"It is difficult to absorb this," he said, calling it an unrealistic, impossible day. "When it happens in your own country and in your own city, it changes everything. The airport was one thing, but the metro is worse."

Wendo is the Brussels Centre Ward elders quorum president, so he helped locate other church members. When school resumed, he was distracted and struggled to focus. "When someone came in late, you turned your head to see what was happening," he said.

LDS Institute classes were canceled, as were all ward activities for the week. Leaders postponed two Saturday events — a Primary activity to put together hygiene kits for refugees and a Young Single Adult devotional. The big question was whether the wards would hold their weekly sacrament meeting service on Easter Sunday.

The Grimbergen Ward canceled services. Curtis said her five children, who are between the ages of 7 and 13, are friends with the missionaries, so their prayers for them to heal throughout the week were very personal.

"It feels like heaven is closer as they pray for those missionaries," she said.

With no meeting to attend, the Curtis family held a small devotional at home on Easter Sunday. They sang their favorite Easter hymns and read Luke 24 about Jesus Christ visiting his apostles after the Resurrection.

"The apostles went home with joy," Curtis said. "I related that to my kids, that hope and joy are available to us as we move on from this crisis."

Moving forward with faith was a message the other women in her ward had been sharing all week. Belgian officials lowered the threat level a couple of days after the attacks but said another attack was "likely and probable."

Many of Curtises friends use public transportation to get to work, and many of their children use it to get to school. They all are more aware and vigilant of their surroundings, but Curtis said many women in her Relief Society "are seeking the Lord's guidance for our footsteps around here."

"What I've heard the sisters say is they felt the Lord guiding their lives and realizing later how the Lord has protected them. They've re-evaluated how they can seek the Lord's guidance as they move through the city."

Easter at church

The Brussels Centre Ward went ahead with sacrament meeting, but with precautions. Kahne advised members to vary their routes to the meetinghouse. Wendo supervised security, permitting vehicles to enter through a single gate and visitors to enter the building through one door. Ushers manned the chapel doors.

Four uninjured missionaries bore testimonies, including the two missionaries who had shared an apartment with Empey and Wells. They joked that Empey and Wells were the ones who were the good guys, always cleaning the apartment.

Amber Empey spoke in English, with interpreters translating into both French and Spanish. She joked that she was happy to hear her son was cleaning up. She said she was still glad her son had served in Belgium.

"She is incredibly positive," Kahne said. "She stuck out in a large congregation, the most positive person in the room while she had a son wounded in the hospital."

Doctors had brought Elder Norby out of a medically induced coma the night before. Sister Norby spoke, and said she knew the Lord was aware of her and her husband and the other missionaries.

"She was a comfort for us," Wendo said, "and maybe we were a comfort for her."

Both women thanked church members for supporting their missionaries.

"Their families were impacted, but they were shining," said Wendo, who said he had a difficult week. "They had something more. To see that gave me strength. It was an example to me of how to use our faith and to handle such significant and difficult situations."

Wendo spent much of the week worrying about his family, or what he would do if an explosion went off in his classroom at the university. His faith eased those worries as the week progressed. By the end of the Easter meeting, he said he had learned he needed to use the strength of the Lord to move ahead and help his family in the present. He said he knows now that his faith will help him rapidly put future problems back into perspective and help him move forward.

"We all had a peace," he said. "It was a calm and deep meeting. I realized the members needed to be there that day. We were strengthened to be together after what had happened. The members needed to be there to draw strength from each other to face what lies ahead."