Gerry Avant: Missionary didn’t let earthquake, injury sidetrack his calling

Having interviewed hundreds of Latter-day Saints during the years I worked at Church News, I’ve marveled at the strong faith many exhibited while facing what I thought were insurmountable odds. Here is one example.

In 1976, I interviewed Elder Randall Ellsworth, who had been severely injured while serving as a missionary in Guatemala. Our interview took place one evening in his room in the George Washington University Hospital.

He described how he had been pinned down by a 60-foot concrete steel-reinforced beam during a 7.5 magnitude earthquake that struck Guatemala on Feb. 4, 1976. Some 17,000 people, including 22 Latter-day Saints, died as a result of the earthquake and its aftershocks.

Elder Ellsworth and other missionaries had met on Feb. 3 in the Church’s meetinghouse in Patzicia for a language training program. They all stayed overnight, with Elder Ellsworth and his companion, Dennis Atkin, sleeping on mattresses on the cultural hall’s stage while the other missionaries stayed in a nearby building. The earthquake hit about 3 a.m. A giant beam, weighing several tons, crashed down and pinned Ellsworth’s legs.

For about six hours, friends and his missionary companions pleaded with him to “hang on just one more minute.” When I met him in a hospital room several weeks later, the injured missionary was still “hanging on” not only in a physical struggle but also to his faith as he pursued recovery in the hospital near his hometown of Rockville, Maryland.

“I’ve never wondered why it was me who got hurt,” he told me. “I look at it like a test. The Lord doesn’t want me to suffer, but I will learn from this experience.”

He spoke in soft tones that matched the night’s stillness of the hospital’s corridors. He mentioned the long day spent in language training on Feb. 3, saying it wasn’t physically exhausting, “but I was tired.”

He slept soundly on his mattress. For a few short moments, the earthquake amounted to nothing more than a dream. “When I woke up, the whole place was roaring. I wasn’t scared. I had been in an earthquake before, and nothing bad happened.”

He soon realized something bad was happening in that earthquake. “Pain shot through my body so bad it sort of knocked the wind out of me,” he said. 

His companion left him to go for help. “I remembered my patriarchal blessing. I had been promised that I’d live a long life and would support my family. The thought of dying completely went out of my mind,” he said.

The other missionaries joined in trying to free Elder Ellsworth. They gave him a blessing. One missionary began chipping away at the stage with a hammer and chisel. An agricultural missionary arrived with a chainsaw.

Finally, a hole was cut large enough to lower him at an angle beneath the stage. He was given another blessing and was placed, still on his mattress, in the back of a truck to get medical care. A long line of victims formed at a clinic, where a doctor gave him pills for pain and told him he’d have to wait a couple of hours. His companions took a chance on transporting him to a hospital, stopping at the mission home en route.

“President (Robert B.) Arnold came out and took charge of things. He put his hand on my head and said, ‘Well, elder.’ At that time, the fear drained out of me. I knew I’d be all right.”

Elder Ellsworth didn’t remember many of the incidents that followed: his hospitalization in Guatemala City, evacuation to the Panama Canal Zone and transfer to the hospital in Washington.

When I met him, he was paralyzed from the waist down because of damage to the nerves at the base of his spinal cord. He was spending about five hours a day in therapy, where he began to walk, using parallel bars, then a walker, then crutches and braces.

This is a part of the interview wedged in my memory, a time when this indomitable missionary’s optimism and faith outdistanced my doubts. He displayed little emotion while describing his ordeal, but sobs wracked his pain-ridden body when he spoke of his love of the Indian people of Guatemala.

“I was promised that I’ll stand and preach the gospel again,” he said. “One of the things I want most is to be able to go back and finish my mission.

“There are two reasons I want to go back. I want to be with the people, and I was called on a mission by a prophet of the Lord for two years. I want to finish that mission.”

While writing the article, I questioned whether I should include the statement about Elder Ellsworth being able to “stand and preach the gospel.” I doubted he would be able to. I included that statement. After many months of therapy, Elder Randall Ellsworth returned to his mission.

He graduated in 1986 from the Georgetown University Medical School, where he specialized in eye surgery. He practiced in that field until his retirement in 2011. He and his wife, Silvia “Sherry” Lang, have five children and six grandchildren.

Over the years, he has had multiple reconstructive surgeries. There hasn’t been a day since the earthquake, he said, when he hasn’t been in pain. It would seem that the hard part was what happened during the earthquake, “but the hardest part has been the last 44 years.”

A previous version of this story listed the incorrect medical school where Elder Ellsworth studied. He graduated from Georgetown University Medical School.