POCATELLO — Upon receiving a neighbor’s 4:30 a.m. call that a massive earthquake and ensuing tsunami had ravaged Sendai, Japan, the area where their son was stationed for an LDS mission, Corrie and Bruce Hiltbrand left the television off.
Rather than seeking confirmation of the grim news, they gathered the family in the living room, and they prayed together. Corrie also called her other sons across town and her extended family, requesting that they say their own personal prayers.
“When we said the prayer, we felt peace and calm, and I knew for 100 percent Patrick was going to be OK. I didn’t know for 100 percent he was going to be alive,” said Corrie, of Pocatello. “The media doesn’t have control over anything, but the Lord does.”
The rest of the day is a blur of unending phone calls, disturbing TV footage, nervous anticipation and labored effort to carry on as usual. The family wouldn’t learn Patrick David Hiltbrand, a 20-year-old Pocatello High School graduate, was safe until after 11 p.m. that night. Seeking to help pass the time, Corrie and Bruce pressed on with family plans to attend a niece’s seventh birthday party, bringing a white Teddy bear as a gift. They tried with limited success to fight the urge to pace.
The concerned birthday girl, Allison, told her aunt, “Aunt Corrie, we’ve been watching these pictures in Japan, and there are cars floating in the streets.”
Corrie simply replied to the child, “I know dear.”
“What good was it going to do to sit here?” Corrie explained of the decision to keep the engagement.
As she awaited news, Corrie also pored through letters sent to and received from Japan. One letter she penned seemed prophetic. She’d mailed it on the very day that she dropped Patrick off at the missionary training center in Provo, Utah, wanting him to receive a correspondence from home without a long wait.
“I said, ‘When you come to stumbling blocks, stack them up and climb higher. You can do anything with the help of the Lord,’” Corrie said.
At a restaurant in Tagajo, located about 10 miles north of the Sendai airport on the eastern coast of Japan, Patrick spoke with a Japanese woman about the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Another woman who had been eavesdropping approached him in irritation, declaring that God didn’t exist. That’s precisely when the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck.
Patrick, one of 84 LDS missionaries serving in the Sendai region, shared the story with his mother in an e-mail he sent Tuesday morning.
“No matter how many times that lady said that because people suffer normally in the world that God doesn’t exist, I know for a fact that he does!” Patrick wrote.
Immediately following the shaking, he and his missionary companion rushed to their church house to check on its condition. On their way there, the pair heard the tsunami sirens; they stepped foot inside the church — a two-story structure built in 2001 — about 30 seconds before the wave hit.
From the safety of the church’s top floor, they watched the floodwater wash away their bicycles — and carry in automobiles whisked around like so many toys.
“I believe about now it’s beginning to hit him, some of the people he’s lost,” Corrie said. “One of the e-mails discussed how Miyako, his first area, was gone. He wrote, ‘I’d hoped to go back there and visit before I left, but I guess there is nothing to visit.’”
Patrick’s e-mails also delved into his good fortune to have survived the disaster.
“We really have been protected. It’s hard when we can’t even go back to our own area,” Patrick wrote. “We have been extremely blessed all the way through. All my stuff is still in Tagajo, but oh well. In Tagajo, there is water, nothing else. Wow!”
Corrie and her family members jumped when a call came in just after 11 p.m. Friday displaying the LDS missionary department on the caller ID.
The church officials confirmed all of the LDS missionaries in Sendai were safe. In the days since then, national media outlets have expressed interest in hearing Patrick’s story.
“It’s a wonderful story, and we are very blessed, and it has been an absolute miracle,” Corrie said. “We’re feeling a little overwhelmed.”
The LDS missionaries are in safe places, including shelters at churches, schools and fire stations. Patrick informed his mother Tuesday the church is moving him to a new location, further away from the nuclear radiation leaking from compromised reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.
For all of the safety hazards that persist in Japan, Corrie insists she isn’t hoping for her son’s prompt return home.
“He would be devastated,” Corrie said, adding Patrick would prefer to finish the final six months of his mission. “He loves Japan.”
Though Patrick indicated he’d like to remain in the Sendai area, he’s not been allowed back in.
“Patrick’s intent is to go wherever they would like him to go and finish out,” Corrie said.
Corrie hasn’t heard her son’s voice since the disaster. In fact, she hasn’t heard him speak much at all since he left on his mission. Missionaries, she explained, are allowed to phone home only twice each year — on Mother’s Day and Christmas.
Communication has mostly been made through letters, which can take upwards of two weeks to reach international destinations, and weekly e-mails.
It takes an especially long time for parcels to make their way across the ocean, as evidenced by the late arrival of the Christmas package Patrick mailed his mother. He expressed his hopes that the “Christmas gift” would arrive in Pocatello in time for Valentine’s Day. It didn’t.
The package was delivered on Saturday, with the words “by sea” scrawled on the side in Patrick’s handwriting.
The timing was so perfect, Corrie felt like hugging the mailman. That package helped a mother who’d endured the ordeal of her life feel her son’s presence. Had it arrived a day earlier, she’s certain she would have wept.
Supportive phone calls continue to pour in for Patrick, an electronics student at Idaho State University. The family has heard from former Scoutmasters, friends, former coworkers at Craigo’s Pizza and Deleta Skating Rink and even people they don’t know from other states who have kept in touch with Patrick over the years.
The impressive showing of well-wishers comes as no surprise to Corrie, who runs into friends of her personable son even when she travels out East.
She welcomes each positive thought and prayer.
“We really, really need the prayers for all of the people who are over there,” Corrie said. “There are so many families whose lives have been ripped apart.”