LEHI, Utah — What can you do in nine seconds?
That’s not much time — maybe just enough to, say, tie a pair of shoes or check a text message. The fastest human time ever recorded in the 100-meter dash (by Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt in 2009) still took longer than nine seconds.
Nine seconds were all that separated the first and second terrorist bombings at the Brussels Airport on March 22, 2016. But even in that brief interlude between explosions that killed dozens and injured hundreds, Elder Richard Norby experienced a moment of instantaneous clarity.
“There was a feeling or an impression … that God knew who I was and where I was at and what had happened.
“Second of all, He knew what had happened to all the other people in the airport and what they were feeling and who they were.”
But there was more.
“I also had an overwhelming and greater appreciation for the fact that the Savior had suffered for all of our pains and sorrows and inabilities and inadequacies.”
That divine reassurance — a certainty that he and everyone else trapped in an airport under attack were under the watch of an atoning Savior — sustained the senior missionary at the moment. They sustained him in the days, weeks and months that followed.
Almost three years have passed since the terrorist attack that continues to affect the 69-year-old retired seminary teacher. A few of the wounds he suffered in the bombings will likely never entirely heal. He visits regularly with burn care doctors and his balance is not quite right. His wife and one-time missionary companion, Pam, still changes the wraps on his damaged left foot.
But each day, he tells the Church News, he gets a bit better.
“Better emotionally. Better physically.”
He rides both horses and bicycles and, in recent days, worked up a sweat shoveling Utah’s prodigious snowfall from his driveway.
Stairs are challenging, but he’s quick to add he can still roughhouse with the grandkids.
“I feel good every morning and I sleep well at night,” he said. “I enjoy most of the things I’ve always enjoyed, just at a slower pace.”
Richard enthusiastically reports he is fit for transcontinental travel. Next month, he and Pam will return to Brussels to commemorate the third anniversary of the bombing. They also plan to reconnect with many of the surgeons, nurses, first responders, fellow Latter-day Saints and friends who helped them make it through the nightmare that ended their mission.
The Belgium visit, said Pam, promises moments of closure and happy reunion.
The one in charge
Latter-day Saints and countless others fell to their knees in prayer on that awful morning almost three years ago. Counted among the airport bombing victims were Elder Norby and three fellow full-time missionaries: Elder Mason Wells, Elder Dres Empey and Sister Fanny Clain.
Last October in general conference, Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles pointed to the eternal lessons that the wounded missionaries and many others learned from that sinister experience.
The Norbys had been true to their covenants and were representing the Lord as missionaries. So why, asked Elder Andersen, would they be afflicted by this tragedy?
“Although the details will differ, the tragedies, the unanticipated tests and trials, both physical and spiritual, come to each of us because this is mortality,” he said.
Like Elder Norby and his fellow missionaries at the airport that day, all will be wounded in some form. It is one of life’s defining truths.
I knew that, live or die, things would be OK because He was in charge.
“Wounds of the soul are not unique to the rich or the poor, to one culture, one nation, or one generation,” Elder Andersen taught. “They come to all and are part of the learning we receive from this mortal experience.”
Thankfully, relatively few people will be physically harmed by a terrorist’s violence. But the Norbys insist the challenges they endure are no greater than those challenges affecting folks that they meet at church, at the clinic, in their neighborhood or via emails and letters.
Some are dealing with a cancer diagnosis. For others, a drug problem or other addictions. Pam empathizes deeply for anyone watching a loved one suffer.
The Norbys draw upon their own well-publicized experiences to assure others that they are not alone. The same divine protection that shielded Richard in those terrifying nine seconds between the airport blasts is available to all seeking Christ’s love.
“I knew that, live or die, things would be OK because He was in charge.”
Pam was alone in their apartment when the airport bombs detonated. But the lonesome anguish she suffered in the hours before being reunited with her husband at a Belgian hospital was staggering.
Like her husband, she surrendered herself entirely to the Lord. The situation, she said, was far beyond her control.
“I didn’t know what the Lord was going to do next, but I knew that the Lord knew,” she said. “He had a plan and I had to learn to trust His plan and have hope.”
In the days after the bombings, Sister Norby found comfort in unexpected ways.
First, she learned of all the people who were praying for her husband and the other injured missionaries.
“There were football teams and groups of nuns and people from one part of the country to the other who were praying.”
She also found peace in her calling. Yes, her husband was seriously injured and under the 24-hour care of medical professionals. But the Norbys were still missionaries. Their charge to share the gospel had not changed.
When a doctor once suggested Elder Norby gulp down a cup of coffee for a morning pick-me-up, the missionary companionship seized the opening and taught him about the Word of Wisdom.
Others on the hospital staff were soon asking their own questions about the Church and missionary work.
“It was a reminder that even when we find ourselves in need of blessings and we’re dealing with our own challenges, there are still opportunities for us to serve and bless others,” said Pam.
Survivors — not victims
In his general conference address, Elder Andersen shared a quote from the Norbys that they still adhere to today:
“Disappointment comes to visit on occasion but is never allowed to stay.”
News reports count Richard Norby and the other injured missionaries among the victims of the 2016 Belgian terrorist attacks.
But the couple rejects that classification. Being victimized, explained Richard, is what the terrorists desired.
“So if we’re not victims, we only have one other choice — to be a survivor,” he said.
“So that’s what we chose to be from the very beginning: a survivor in this game of life.”