President Tateoka's Personal Account of the Disaster and God's Hand in assuring the Safety of His Missionaries
Dear Brothers and Sisters, On Friday, March 11th, 2011 in the Koriyama, Japan chapel at approximately 2:47 p.m. our Heavenly Father once again taught his missionaries the importance of relying on the Spirit. For about two or three months prior, I had been receiving strong impressions that our missionaries and members must learn to receive and act upon personal revelation. At every teaching opportunity, in every sacrament meeting and in every zone conference and leadership meeting, we talked about the need to “. . .turn ye to the Lord . . .,” “. . .lean not to thine own understanding,” “. . . rely . . . [on] Him who is mighty to save.” We studied the scriptures, especially the Book of Mormon, Preach My Gospel and the conference talks. I provided opportunities to pray, to create their own Sacred Grove, to facilitate learning the “will of the Lord.” On March 11th, I understood why Heavenly Father had given the inspiration to emphasize the need to turn to the Lord. Due to a series of events, we had no one else to whom we could turn.
At the time of the earthquake, Sister Tateoka and I were listening to the second missionary lesson being taught by two young elders as part of our leadership training on Fundamentals from Preach My Gospel: More Effective Teaching. Elder Carthew, a trainer and Elder Dowdy, a new Elder two weeks into his mission, finished the first concept of the first lesson. Elder Carthew taught with the Spirit and bore a strong testimony. Elder Dowdy spoke Japanese very well considering he was in his second week in the mission field. He testified boldly and explained gospel principles clearly and simply.
At that moment the Koriyama chapel windows began to rattle, then they began to bang violently as if someone had just slammed the door. Everyone froze, straining to listen and staring in amazement. The whole room began to shake vigorously. Chairs fell. Books bounced across the tables and dropped to the floor. Walls swayed. Out of the chaos, a clear voice commanded, “Open the door!” In the next few days, the Spirit would speak many times, to many people and through many people. Like the Sons of Helaman, we “did not ever doubt God would deliver [us]”.
I ran to the door and threw it open, holding it in place so we would not be trapped inside when the weight of the building came down on the door. Sister Tateoka and I shouted, “Get outside, right now!” “Help Sister Mizumoto!” The missionaries leaped to the stairwell and descended down the stairs. By now, the entire building jerked and swayed. Sister Mizumoto said, “We are safe in the church.” Her frail body had a difficult time negotiating the stairs as they rocked back and forth. We tried to coaxing her to leave but did not succeed. Sister Tateoka just put her arms around her and protected her until the shaking stopped and we could assist her down the stairs. We left to the sound of crashing dishes.
Once outside the building, the sky blackened. Snow pelted the earth. The cemetery in front of the church, told the story of earthquake’s destruction. Row after row of headstones lay helter-skelter on the ground. Where the once massive stone wall surrounding the cemetery once stood, stones had dropped to the ground, weakened by the shaking. The high rise behind the church had a visible crack from the sixth floor down to the first floor. Those exiting the apartment building had looks of fear and concern. In contrast, our elders and sister exhibited little fear. They knew Heavenly Father would look after them.
When we settled down and began to think about what we should do next, I called for a few volunteers to go back into the church. Sister Tateoka had left her purse and was uneasy about leaving it in the Church. So I ran back in. Once back in the building Elder Taylor shouted, “The sisters need their coats.” Inside, the chapel was a shamble of fallen chairs and tables. We moved the chairs and found the coats and we were about to run back out. One elder shouted, “Get our scriptures!” So we took what was most precious to us, our scriptures and run outside. I was proud of my elders that in a time of crisis they would be guided by the Spirit to think of the comfort of others and that they similarly would be guided to recognize the scriptures as their most cherished possession. In a time of crisis, it is amazing how clearly the promptings of the Holy Spirit come. I have thought many times since that initial earthquake about what is my most important possession. Nothing has come more clearly than the answer that we received in that time of crisis to turn to our scriptures first. The scriptures are our most important possession, “How rare a possession.”
A second jolt brought more dishes crashing down. We did not stay in the building to know what happened next. After evacuating the building, I instructed the Koriyama Zone missionaries to return to their areas. Little did I know that no public transportation would be running? Sister Tateoka and I then left to return to the mission home to help the remainder of our missionaries. On the way to the mission home, we tried to call the zone leaders to learn how everyone was doing. Because the phone systems became overburdened, we could not get word back. What should have been a routine phone check continued for hours with many missionaries not able to make contact. However, everyone reporting back was alright. We received word that the Koriyama zone missionaries would not be able to return home. Fortunately, they were all safe in the evacuation center in the fire station. The Lord had protected our missionaries by keeping them in Koriyama, had they returned home, they would have been placed in harm’s way.
By evening, after six hours of calling, thirty missionaries were accounted for and were all well. We received no contact from forty-two missionaries. That evening I was still not able to call out. Our mission has switched to cell phones, but the cell phone service was so limited and overwhelmed that only about one call in one hundred could make it through. (However, later I learned that phone service to one of our remote areas, Miyako, was only available through our carrier. Again, a tender mercy of the Lord allowed us to eventually contact our missionaries.)
We drove for over six hours. Because the freeways were closed and many of the roads were damaged, we could not make back home to Sendai. We drove until we reached a bridge that was out. Although we wanted to go back home, the Lord knew that we were needed in Koriyama so He would not let me make the mistake of going home. Instead, He guided me to return to Koriyama where the largest concentration of missionaries was staying safely in a evacuation center. We drove another two hours to return to Koriyama to be with our missionaries. We arrived at back in Koriyama around midnight.
Because our hotel was closed and our room was inaccessible, the lower two floors of the building were converted to an evacuation center. We stayed the night with those who were displaced from their homes or hotel rooms due to the earthquake. At 4:00 a.m. I was awakened by another earthquake. At that time another prompting came. Our evacuation center had access to the hotel’s landline. It is amazing how the Holy Ghost guides our every move. I reported to our Area Authority for the first time since the Daishinsei, the mega earth quake, as the Japanese call it. “Thirty missionaries are alive and doing well.” By the end of the first twenty-four hour period forty of our seventy-two missionaries would be accounted for.
Early, in the morning the Koriyama District President Matsumura came to meet us and our missionaries. He brought food, rice balls that showed his love, as well as his insight into our needs. Good district presidents like good members everywhere, often guided by the Spirit. The Spirit will tell us what we should do, like he told President Matsumura how he could serve God’s children. Because the Spirit continued to guide us, Sister Tateoka and I knew we could not be separated from our missionaries for long. Now, I realized the sole purpose for our going back to our Hotel was to be able to make telephone contact with the Area Presidency. Having accomplished our purpose, we reunited with our missionaries, and stayed with them in the fire station evacuation center. While we were there, we were also visited by the Koriyama branch president, President Akatsuka, who also was prompted to check on us.
After morning study, I assigned a few elders to find water. I assigned the sisters to find food. I assigned others to check transportation. We still wanted to send missionaries back to their areas. The rest of us went to clean the church. Elder Warren and Elder Kaneko, focusing on their true missionary purpose, found two investigators while waiting in line for water. The missionaries invited them to dinner with us and to Sacrament meeting the next morning. We held a testimony meeting that night after dinner and all bore a strong testimony of the goodness of the Lord in preserving us minute by minute. We realized then, in a manner even more strongly than we had known before, that we must rely on the Lord.
Later we learned that in Fukushima and Iwaki the nuclear reactors had failed and radiation threats were forcing evacuation of nearby residences. Through promptings of the Spirit the Iwaki elders as well as the Fukushima elders and sisters were safe in Koriyama. Mission presidents were instructed to hold frequent leadership conferences. Those attending leadership conference were to include all zone leaders, district leaders and trainers. The Iwaki Elders were not in the group invited to leadership training. But, another prompting of the Holy Spirit, told me that the Iwaki elders needed to be present, so they came, and were out of harm’s way. The Lord inspires his leaders to put his missionaries where they will be safe.
Moreover, the Lord controlled the time we were in Koriyama. Every other training and every other Zone Conference was completed in a week. These meetings were always held in Koriyama on Thursday. This time the Lord called for a Friday schedule since member district conference would be on Saturday and Sunday in Koriyama. Because the mega earthquake occurred on Friday, the Lord’s disciple, our Area President, was safe in Tokyo. Had the earthquake occurred twenty-four hours later, the Area President would have been trapped in Koriyama. The Lord had protected His servant from coming into an area where he would be without communication and transportation. Not only did the Lord, protect the Seventy, but He also protected His missionaries. He scheduled the missionaries where he wanted them, and when District Conference was canceled, the Lord allowed a member from Aizuwakamatsu to come to the canceled District Conference. This provided a way for the Aizuwakamatsu elders to return safely to their area. Other members, like my counselor President Yoshida, were prompted to come to Koriyama. He was in Niigata and drove to Koriyama. He was in precisely the right area so an elder could ride with him and his sick grandchild back to safety in Niigata. These members, too, received and heeded promptings of the Lord to be in a place where they could be of service to the Lord’s missionaries.
Early Sunday morning, I awoke early and was once given an impression to go to Fukushima to retrieve the elders’ and sisters’ possessions. Little did I know that the missionaries would be evacuated and would take the possessions that they retrieved that Sunday morning with them to Sapporo. At that time the world did not know anything about the radiation dangers, nor did I even know that Fukushima had a nuclear power plant. But the Lord knew and provided a way to not only get the elders and sisters safely out of harm’s way, but out of harm’s way with possessions in hand.
I had planned Sunday meetings previously so everything went relatively smoothly for Sunday services. Elder Satomi taught his last lesson in Koriyama before leaving for home. Sunday afternoon we were able to drive the three Fukushima Sisters and the two assistants safely to Niigata. The drive which would normally take a few hours by freeway took over six hours on side roads. We drove more than eighteen hours without a concern. God continues to be a God of miracles. The miracle of the non-consuming gas tank helped us realize that God continues to protect his missionaries. The gasoline fuel level, like the widow of Zarepath’s cruse of oil, “wasted not.”
Sunday evening brought another challenge. In our weekly call in, several missionaries were not accounted for. Ishinomaki was hit hard by the tsunami as was Miyako and Tagajo. The Ishinomaki sisters initially reported they were safe in the emergency shelter. However, they failed to report in Sunday evening. Their rescue will be described in more detail below. The Miyako elders, similarly were safe in the evacuation shelter only to learn that rising water stranded the elders, first in the auditorium, then to the first floor and then to the second floor. We would later learn that the government considered rescuing these elders by helicopter. The water receded just sufficient enough to allow a member to drive them inland to safety in the Morioka Church. The Tagajo elders were trapped for over twenty hours in the church while the tsunami raged around them. Their bikes were swept away by the tsunami, the elders walked through the ravaged city until they were picked up by a member and driven to the next closest chapel at Kamisugi were they would stay with the Kamisugi Zone Leaders and others displaced by the earthquake and the tsunami. In each instance, the missionaries in the three most damaged cities, initially, found safe shelter, and then were subsequently rescued as a result of their initially listening to the prompting of the Spirit and then being assisted by someone else who was directed by the Spirit to come to their assistance.
On Monday, March 14th, we tried to hold training as usual in Niigata, but continued to field concerned calls from the Area Presidency and anxious missionaries. Eventually I turned the meeting over to my assistants and focused on a plan to move all the elders to what the Area Presidency and I deemed green zones, areas where the missionaries would not be required to stay in emergency shelters, where they could have running water, electricity and gas. In Niigata we were blessed with electricity and telephone service. The mission home was still without electricity and water, Koriyama had no water. Being in Niigata was a blessing and another tender mercy of the Lord. In Niigata we had continual communication with the Area Authority and the opportunity to develop an evacuation plan
On Tuesday, March 15, we traveled to Tokyo to present our evacuation plan from red zones to safe green zones to the Area Authority. We had not heard anything from the Ishinomaki Sisters since Friday. Our concern elevated each time we heard of the numerous casualties in Ishinomaki. When we reached Tokyo, our first priority was to find the Ishinomaki sisters. Sister Tateoka and I had prayed and fasted that they might be found. By then we had organized a search for them and the first day yielded no results. They could not be found in the evacuation center. My concern was that they were attempting to contact their recent convert who was scheduled to be out at sea on his fishing boat. In Tokyo, Brother Wada, the director of temporal affairs, acting on a prompting of the Spirit, suggested that we trace all the Ishinomaki sister’s telephone calls. After calling the most recent recipients of telephone calls, we learned that the sisters were well. They were out by day doing what missionaries do best, being an example of Christ-like service. We dispatched members to pick up the sisters and deliver them safely to the Nagamachi sisters, the closest area to the mission home.
On Tuesday, while in Tokyo we arranged for a van and a bus to take our elders and sisters out of difficult situations to more comfortable, safe areas. Gasoline was unavailable. Public transportation was not available in the central corridor of our mission, nor was it available on the hard hit east coast. Private cars and a single charter bus were all that was available. Buses ran on diesel fuel and were able to continue some service. Sister Tateoka and I would personally pick up elders in remote areas where bus or van access was not practical. Back on Tuesday night we called out the transfers.
On Wednesday, March 16th Elder Holland made his announcement that our missionaries would be moved to Sapporo and our transfer plans became more intense. Because we could not buy gasoline in the interior of our mission, a rescue attempt was precarious. On route to pick up the elders for the originally scheduled transfer, we learned of the need to evacuate. Due to a blessing of the Lord, we already had the means of transportation in place for a total evacuation. We simply called the elders and sister who were originally not transferring and told them that they too, must board the bus as well. Arriving by bus and limited public transportation, almost, two thirds of our missionaries arrived safely in our mission’s northern most city, Aomori. The bus had miraculously been arranged for the day before when roads were still impassable and gas almost impossible to obtain. The missionaries spent the night in Aomori before they flew south to Tokyo. Then they flew back up north again, across Aomori over the Aomori Bay to Sapporo where they would be safe. One companionship of sisters was scheduled to travel by ferry from their seaport town of Akita to Aomori. But the sea was too rough to travel. But by another tender mercy of the Lord, one train on the northern part of the island was running, the train from Akita to Aomori. The Sisters were able to catch the train to Aomori where they joined the other missionaries. Only our Heavenly Father could orchestrate such a smooth transition in such a short time. God directs his missionaries and their leaders.
About one forth of our missionaries moved from Koriyama, a city approximately 100 kilometers from the now well-known Fukushima nuclear reactors, to a city where they would be safe. One of the Lord’s tender mercies was that at the time of the evacuation, I had already moved five missionaries in my van, one came with president Yoshida and two had traveled with a member, so the Presiding Bishopric van was sufficient to remove the remaining Koriyama missionaries to Niigata. Having arrived in Niigata, the Koriyama elders who rode in the Presiding Bishopric van and those we moved previously were safe. From there, part of the Koriyama zone continued to Tokyo in the Presiding Bishopric van, while the other part of the Koriyama zone and the Niigata zone traveled by bullet train. From Tokyo both zones flew to Sapporo.
Wednesday, March 16th was a long day. Sister Tateoka and I drove to the mission home to pick up passports. The original plan was for us to pick up the Mission home elders, but they were instructed to board the bus going to Aomori. This enabled us up to pick up the four elders who now remained in our mission. After picking up the first companionship in Yamagata at about 5:30 p.m., we traveled across the mountains. Shortly, after picking up the elders, the weather changed. Driving snow hindered our progress. We encountered blizzard-like conditions. Visibility was near zero, yet we persevered. We reached the summit at 7:30 p.m. happy to have traveled so far in safety, but having sufficiently depleted our gasoline supply. The blizzard had not deterred us. But an avalanche and the ensuing road closure forced us to turn around and go back to Yamagata, the city where we picked up the elders originally. Once in Yamagata, we had insufficient gasoline to travel on to our destination, Niigata. Gasoline was not available to be purchased at any time, let alone at 8:00 p.m.
We prayed again for a miracle. The elders began to call all the members to see if they could find some gasoline. Initially, no gasoline could be found and none could be purchased. Finally, the missionaries found a less-active member, who they had been working with (once again another tender mercy of the Lord) who had gasoline. Brother Tsuchihashi, lived sixty kilometer north of Yamagata (the opposite direction from where we wanted to go) in a small town called Shinjo. He could give us twenty liters of gasoline. We determined, if we received twenty liters of gasoline, but had to travel sixty kilometers out of our way and back to receive it, we would still benefit by approximately 10 liters. This would be precisely enough gasoline to take us to Niigata. So the trip was worthwhile.
We call the blessing of obtaining gasoline at 10:30 at night the “miracle of Shinjo.” But the miracle does not end there. Outside of Shinjo is another mountain pass, not often traveled. My counselor called and was surprised to learn we were in Shinjo. He exclaimed, “You are in Shinjo. From there you can take the mountain pass to the Tsuruoka elder’s apartment.” Unbeknown to us, our back tracking put us precisely in line to go around the avalanche to reach our elders in Tsuruoka. We said another prayer thanking the Lord for his goodness and traveled to the last elder’s apartment. We reached the Tsuruoka elders’ apartment at approximately midnight, happy to be safe and well. Traveling to Niigata, we looked down at the turbulent Sea of Japan, were grateful that our Akita sisters traveled by train rather than take a ferry. The Lord had once again protected his missionaries. We then traveled by car to Niigata, by bullet train to Tokyo and then by airplane to Sapporo.
I have contemplated many times upon the chain of miracles necessary to evacuate all of our missionaries. The Lord watches out for his missionaries. He blesses us minute by minute. He answers our prayers. The Holy Ghost inspires us as to what we must do and when we must do it. He comforts us and assists us with faith and understanding to carry on successfully. If we rely on the Lord, everything will work out alright. God lives. His leaders are inspired. He loves each one of us. He gives us breath, direction, hope and salvation. He goes before us and is on our right hand and left hand and sends his angels to bear us up. I thank Him for the blessing of working with His missionaries. That blessing is only surpassed by the blessing of now being able to work with those members who must now live and rebuild in this troubled area. The miracles continue each day. I am blessed to be here and to see the Lord’s work. This work will roll forth until it sounds in every ear. I am happy to be a part of it. I say these things in the name of our Savior, our Lord and our Redeemer, Jesus Christ, Amen.
Thank you for your prayers and support.
Presently, all are missionaries are safely in Sapporo. This week the water came back on here in Sendai. All of the members of our 4 member Districts are accounted for and are in good health. We have had family members pass away, family members that are not accounted for. Some home that have been completely lost, or destroyed. We still have some member and their families living in shelters. The Church response has be overwhelming. People are starting to go back to work. Everyone seem to be able to get food and water. Gasoline is in short supply. The lines are three hours long for 20 liters. Food is coming back on the shelves. The freeways are opened this week. Airlines and railroad serve is stopped in the core areas of our mission. The member are in good spirits. We have been greatly blessed by the Lord. Testimony meetings are incredible. We are truly thankful for each day of life. The Lord gives us our daily bread. In the tsunami effected area, the homes are all gutted, cars overturned, mud is everywhere and everyone is working on making conditions livable. Many volunteers have come to help. Trucks bring water and fuel oil and food. No one seems to question, “why?” They just remain grateful for their family and for what little they have been able to salvage. One church is severely damaged, and one missionary apartment is severely damaged and will be closed. Two other churches have structural damage, but for the most part our buildings we unharmed. Thank you for your prayers and love. There is no place we would rather be. The Gospel is true. God loves his children. He knows each one of us by name and by need. He answer prayers, both uttered and unexpressed. He protects us minute by minute. He provides for us hour by hour. He is our Redeemer and Savior. It is a privilege to be able to be part of his church and to serve in this wonderful land.
Many people have asked how they could help. If you are so inclined, we have ask the Church for a huge sum of money to help with the relief effort. Any contributions to the Church Humanitarian effort specifically earmarked for Japan Sendai would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your help.
Reid and Shauna