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'Pure love': What a Muslim woman taught Latter-day Saint Dres Empey during the 2016 Brussels terrorist bombing

In a horrific moment precipitated by evil, a bloodied and dazed Elder Dres Empey witnessed, in his words, “pure love.”

A terrorist’s bomb had detonated in the check-in area of the Brussels Airport seconds earlier, killing more than a dozen people and injuring many more — including Elder Empey and three fellow missionaries.

“When I first walked out of the airport doors there was a Muslim lady helping my companion, Elder (Mason) Wells,” he said. “While everyone else was running away, she decided to stick around and help people.”

The next several weeks forged almost endless memories for the young man from Santa Clara, Utah. Some are tragic and dark; others, bright and uplifting. But of all his bomb-related evocations, Empey chooses first to remember the unknown Muslim woman coming to the aid of his companion and friend.

“I actually wish that I thought more frequently about the bombing,” he said. “Whenever I think back to it, it makes me want to be more like that lady helping others.”

Almost three years have passed since the March 22, 2016, Brussels Airport suicide bombings. Elder Empey, Elder Wells and senior missionary Elder Richard Norby were dropping off Sister Fanny Clain, who was traveling to the Provo MTC. They would be numbered among the hundreds of casualties in a series of terrorist attacks across the country.

Latter-day Saints and many others were soon praying and posting social media well-wishes for the four injured missionaries, who were all being treated in Belgian hospitals.

Mason Wells and Joseph Dresden Empey recover from injuries they suffered in the March 22 Brussels airport terrorist attack at the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City.
Mason Wells and Joseph Dresden Empey recover from injuries they suffered in the March 22 Brussels airport terrorist attack at the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City. Photo: Charlie Ehlert, University of Utah Health Care

“I was so blessed because there were people around the world praying for us — people from all religious beliefs and backgrounds,” he said.

That unified love and support was key “in turning all of this into an extremely positive experience," he added. Two weeks later, Empey returned to his Utah home.

His recovery from burn and shrapnel injuries is almost complete.

“I’m feeling great physically, mentally and emotionally,” he told the Church News. “I still have scars, and I still have shrapnel under my skin. I can push on it and feel the metal.”

He has a bit of numbness in one foot. “But it’s not painful, just sometimes annoying.”

Empey knows he will forever be remembered for the Brussels bombing. And that’s OK. He’s grateful to both loved ones and strangers who helped him and his family during their crisis.

“We will always have a connection.”

Last October he spent a few minutes catching up with Richard Norby at a mission reunion. He wishes he could speak more frequently with the other missionaries injured at the airport.

They’re all busy. Mason Wells is a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy. Fanny Clain completed her mission to Ohio, returned home to France and is now married.

“But we will always have a connection,” he said.

As part of his recovery process, Empey took up rock climbing and enjoys scaling the red rocks near his southern Utah home.

Last year he began working for a hospitality management company that takes him to vacation spots around the state. He’s also a married man, thanks to a matchmaking relative.

Dres and Elle Empey returned to the Brussels Airport for the two-year anniversary of the Brussels terrorist bombing.
Dres and Elle Empey returned to the Brussels Airport for the two-year anniversary of the Brussels terrorist bombing. Photo: Photo courtesy of Drew Empey

“My cousin was working at a hair salon and set me up on a blind date with a coworker.” He admits, laughing that he will forever be in his cousin’s debt.

He and that one-time blind date, Elle Roberts, married in November of 2017.

For Empey, the multi-faceted pain from the 2016 Brussels terrorist bombing has largely faded. But like the scars and shrapnel, its lessons remain.

“We need to always remember that people are going through things that are way more difficult than what I experienced,” he said. “We need to extend our love and support to them any way we can.”

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