8 Nov 2011
It was the end of an exhausting day. We had begun the day accompany a General Authority and his wife on a tour of the mission. First on the agenda was a zone conference with missionaries from six of our nine mission’s zones- we would have over 100 missionaries attending. As we entered the chapel, I was pleased to see how every missionary was impeccably dressed for the occasion- pressed white shirts, newly cleaned suits, polished shoes, freshly cut hair. We lined up in the front of the chapel with our guests. Each missionary then had the privilege, one by one, to meet our wonderful guests, Elder Zivic (Quorum of the Seventy), and his gracious wife. Steve and I took advantage of this opportunity to greet each missionary also. Steve always gives “abrazos” (hugs) to each Elder and I do the same with each sister missionary. A wonderful morning and afternoon followed. The Zivics inspired us and taught a wonderfully successful zone conference. After the conference, our missionaries returned, fed in spirit, to their areas of labor. We climbed into our car and sped off to Laredo (about a three hour drive) so that Elder Zivic could speak to the members there in a devotional that evening. His message was encouraging and lifted the spirits of not only the missionaries, but the members living in the Laredo District.
At about 8:15 that night, during the devotional, both Steve and I noticed that our phones, set to vibrate, seemed out of control. As we glanced at our missed calls, we realized that we both were getting repeated calls from the same proselytizing area in the mission. These missionaries knew we were in Laredo for a meeting that night with a General Authority. We had just spent most of the day with them. Because of the repeated calls, we knew something must be wrong. I walked off the stand and into the hallway where our assistants were quickly walking toward me. The expression on their faces was grim. Their phone had also been consistently ringing, but they had left the meeting before me and had already spoken with the panicked missionary. It was serious, they told me; three of our biking elders had been hit by a car. The hospital where the missionaries had been taken was calling the only number available to them in an effort to locate family members.
I had to make a few more phone calls. It was hard to get information because the missionaries did not ask the name of the hospital where the injured missionaries were, only instructions on how to get there. There are many hospitals in the McAllen area. I wanted to know the names of the missionaries involved- Elders Strong, Walker and Harris. We were a three and a half hour drive away and a General Authority was counting on us. I felt helpless. I beckoned my husband to leave the stand and come join us in the hallway. Slowly, more information trickled in. Finally, I received a call from a member who told me that two missionaries had died and the other was in critical condition. I wanted to deny it. For even one single missionary to die while in the field is rare, but two? Riding bikes? Two was impossible! These were MY missionaries. This can’t happen in our mission…
It had happened. Two were dead. One was injured. Some of our full-time missionaries and a local bishop were already at the hospital. A local stake president (and good friend) was also on his way. We hoped that communication would improve, yet I found that I received more news from my sons in Dallas and Salt Lake than what I could obtain in southern Texas. Mission wide, church members heard news reports. To our dismay, many began calling missionaries who were serving within their ward boundaries. Former missionaries ignored rules and sent text messages to missionaries in the field. Our full-time missionaries were getting incorrect information, gossip. We did correctly learn, however, that Elder Harris had serious injuries that required stitches and x-rays, but he would be OK. He was not in critical condition or undergoing surgery. With how quickly news spreads, we had no chance to talk to or comfort our missionaries as we would have liked to do. Our missionaries were our first priority. Again, we felt helpless.
Steve had already been making the required phone calls to the missionary department. The missionary department would make arrangements to notify the parents in person. We continued to wait in Laredo, not knowing if we could leave, while Elder Zivic conducted an important interview following the devotional. The interview lasted about an hour and a half- the longest hour and a half of my life. Our car was his travel arrangements and we didn’t feel that we could simply leave him.
Finally, about 11:30 p.m., we were told we could leave Laredo. Elder Zivic would stay and hold the zone conference in the morning with the final three zones. Our assistants would stay and help him. Elder Zivic would offer comfort to our missionaries in that area of the mission. We hated to leave them, but we had to be in McAllen.
We cried, wept and prayed all the way home. One of our office couples, and good friends, the Rios’ (who had come to Laredo to inspect vehicles) followed closely behind. We called the zone leaders (who we had asked to stay at the hospital) and arranged to speak with Elder Harris. Elder Harris explained that the threesome had just left an appointment where they had made a baptismal commitment and they were on their way to the next appointment. Out of nowhere, he saw headlights and literally within seconds, was flipping through the air. He landed next to mortally injured Elder Walker. We gave him what words of comfort we could offer and we told him that he should call home as soon as possible. Finally, at about 2:00 a.m., we received word that the zone leaders, along with our stake president friend, had returned to our home with Elder Harris. Our son Zach was there to welcome them. We arrived about a half hour later.
We walked up to Elder Harris, sitting on our couch wearing a hospital gown and a blanket. Somehow, through all the commotion at the hospital, Elder Harris’ clothes, backpack, and shoes had disappeared. The clothes really didn’t matter much anyway, because they had either been ripped apart by the force of the accident or by emergency medical personnel. Both Steve and I gave him a hug. As I hugged him, tears filled my eyes and I could only whisper, “We’re so grateful you are still with us!”
We tried to make comfortable accommodations for the three missionaries to stay with us for the remainder of the night. It’s the first time we have ever told missionaries to sleep in- but we wanted them to and expected them to. Elder Harris had not only suffered emotional wounds, but physical wounds as well. He had gashes on his legs, held together with large staples and a hole in his foot that continued to bleed. His forearm was so swollen that it was approximately double its normal size, yet x-rays had shown no breaks. He was already stiff and had difficulty moving. We knew that Elder Harris would have a rough night, even with the companionship of the zone leaders. We were right- he did, but he would improve.
We continued to make and receive phone calls in the early morning hours after our arrival home. We received confirmation that Elder Strong’s parents had been notified and we spoke and cried with them. We expressed our deepest sympathy and we expressed how much we loved their son also. We had just spent the most wonderful seventeen months of our lives with him. We wanted to speak with Elder Walker’s family, but we hadn’t received the confirmation that local church leaders had spoken with them yet. Finally, we knew that news stations were announcing the names of the victims and we called Elder Walker’s parents in Idaho. Once again we expressed our sorrow and wept with Brother and Sister Walker. All we could do was weep…our hearts were so heavy… never did we think that we, or families of our missionaries, would be expected to bear such burdens.
The missionary department sent us something that we never wanted or expected to see. It is called the “missionary death checklist.” It contained a list of instructions for us to follow. I glanced at the sheet and decided I would read it more thoroughly in the morning. I did notice, however, that one of the items on the list was to make ourselves available to the press 24/7. I inwardly groaned at the requirement. I knew it would be difficult- and it turned out to be one of our greatest challenges. Finally, at about 4:30 a.m., we tried to go to bed. It was a rather short sleep because our phones started ringing promptly at 6:30 a.m. It was the church missionary department and, of course, the press.
That morning, I remembered that a counselor from LDS Social Services based in Houston was in town. I sent him an early text message with our bad news. He was scheduled to leave that day, but immediately made plans to extend his stay, support us, and meet with missionaries to help them understand the grieving process.
Our missionaries are always our first priority. We were determined that they would remain our first priority throughout the ordeal. Yet, it would be difficult to deal with the press from four different states (Texas, Utah, Idaho, and Alabama) and still find time to meet and grieve with our missionaries. Our missionaries needed to hear from us- they had heard so much, too much, from others. They needed some direction, encouragement, and peace. We decided to call together four of the missionary zones in McAllen to meet in the La Vista chapel at 11:00 a.m. Later that day, we would travel to Harlingen and meet with two other zones there. We didn’t know what we would say or do… we would rely on the spirit. The Lord now had in His care two of our missionary sons.
We took our miracle, our survivor, Elder Harris, with us to meet with the other missionaries. The missionaries saw that he was alright and offered their love and support to him. Our LDS Social Services counselor volunteered to be there for both meetings and we accepted his offer. We received a call of consolation from Elder Jeffery R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
As we mourned with our missionaries, we felt their resolve, determination, love, and unity increase. Their fallen companions had not only given their hearts, might, minds and strength to their purpose as missionaries, but their very lives. As the Lord’s army in the Texas McAllen Mission, we became more determined to continue in the greatest work on earth- to help to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of all men.
: “There is no chance, no fate, no destiny that can circumvent or hinder or control the firm resolve of a determined soul’’
-Elder Marion D. Hanks as quoted in ””The Songs They Could Not Sing” by Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
The next few days were a blur as we worked with the missionary department and morticians, followed up on care for Elder Harris, dealt with many, many requests from the press, and returned to the elders’ apartment to choose what items we should immediately send home to their grieving parents. There was an outpouring of support from the community. The local press ran innumerable stories, day after day, about the tragedy and why missionaries are serving in the local communities. Elder Harris remained with us at the mission home and we grieved together. We averaged about four hours of sleep each night; which really didn’t matter much because sleep didn’t come easily. Our hearts still ached.
Several weeks prior to the tragedy, I had made plans, and received approval, to return home to Salt Lake to help when our daughter-in-law gave birth to twin grandsons. Little did I know that the timing of the visit would be at the same time as the funerals for our missionaries. I traveled to Salt Lake on the same day that the bodies were flown home. I was able to meet in person with the Strong family as they poured over the items that I had carefully packed for them. We offered comfort to each other. I will always remember that I was able to attend the wonderful funeral of Elder Trevor Strong. He was loved- and continues to be loved- by so many. I wished that I could have also traveled to Idaho for the farewell to Elder Walker. His family has become our friends.
The local press wanted to know when there would be a vigil or memorial service. With such an outcry from the community, we asked the families and church authorities if we could hold a service and allow the public to mourn with us. Permission was granted. We decided to hold the service after the funerals were over in their home states and after my return to McAllen. To our surprise and delight, Brother and Sister Strong, along with Elder Strong’s twin brother, were able to come. The service was held in the chapel where the missionaries served. Sister Strong bore a strong testimony of missionary work. Her words touched many hearts. With the support and help of church members, the service was broadcast to Idaho and Utah and to other chapels in our mission over the web. Over 1300 people attended or watched. We now have a wonderful recording of the service that brought closure and peace to many, including many of our full-time missionaries. The angels are still on our side.
Not a day goes by when I don’t think of them…
The Texas McAllen Mission is a mission of love and unity. We are a baptizing mission. Elders Strong and Walker are forever a part of us. They are woven into the fabric that has made our mission what it is today. They returned to their heavenly home while doing what they loved to do… missionary work. The last words written in Elder Strong’s journal were, “Boy, do I love missionary work!” Nothing can stop them now.
“We do not control what I call ‘the great transfer board in the sky.’ The inconveniences that are sometimes associated with release from our labors here are necessary in order to accelerate the work there.” - Elder Neal A. Maxwell