When heavy smoke and fire blazed from a seniors’ complex on Tuesday, July 11, 2017, the next-door meetinghouse of the LDS West Lethbridge Stake became a place of refuge and safety.
As 140 residents were evacuated from their apartments, 80 missionaries inside the Stake Centre sprang to their aid. They assisted the seniors with any of their immediate needs as they helped them move to safety inside the Church. There the missionaries additionally offered these fire victims food and water, and one Sister missionary played hymns on the piano in the gym for a couple of hours. They continued to provide conversation, comfort, and assistance until the Canadian Red Cross responders were able to account for the residents of The Gardens Seniors’ Complex and find all of them alternative living arrangements.
Stephen P. Miles, President of the Calgary-Canada Mission, commented, “One interesting fact was just a few days prior to the conference, our missionary conference was scheduled to be in a different building with fewer missionaries. Just prior to the conference, we switched locations to the West Stake Centre and invited 80 missionaries. Call it coincidence, I don't think so.”
In fact, the missionaries were having safety driving monitors installed in all of their vehicles by Joe Paul, a Church employee who also serves as a Search and Rescue volunteer. Paul saw the fire shortly after 3:00 p.m. and was instrumental in evacuating about 50 people from the Seniors’ complex before 35 fire fighters arrived. The Fire Department cut a hole in the fence surrounding the Church so that victims could be moved more directly inside the Church.
Next, Brother Paul went into the chapel where the missionaries were having a concluding testimony meeting and advised President Miles of the emergency situation. President Miles explained the situation to the missionaries and simply directed, “Let’s go help them.”
All the missionaries stood up and immediately went into action by helping the evacuees. Many seniors had left without their walkers or canes, so it was a relief to have helping arms to lean on.
A 92 year-old resident of the Gardens was carried down four flights of stairs by fire fighters. Once safely outside, four male missionaries picked him up and carried him inside the Church. He commented, “Boys, there is more than one way to save a soul.”
Sister Megan Sims (from LaBarge, Wyoming) and Sister Mercedes Lane (from Dixon, California) helped move a lady sitting on her walker to the Church. Once safely inside, this lady remarked, “I’ve always wanted to come into this building, but I didn’t think it would take my home getting on fire to get me in here.” Sister Lane noted, “She was very grateful for all that we were doing, and she really admired us for being there and helping so willingly.”
Besides the safety of the building, the victims felt comforted to be helped by young people who were all wearing suits or dresses. Most recognized them as missionaries. The Elders brought in chairs and helped with any physical needs such as carrying in oxygen tanks. Since the missionaries had eaten lunch at the Church, Sister Sims said, “It was really cool that food was already right there, and it was already set up on the tables in the gym.” One senior was suffering from smoke inhalation, so the missionaries helped her sit down and found medical officials to come and attend to her.
Once the Red Cross started to process where the seniors would be moved, they had the missionaries stand at all of the exits in order make sure that no one left. Missionaries also went around to each person and wrote down their names in order to help account for everyone. According to President Miles, “The real story of what happened that day was the compassionate service and inspired assistance that the missionaries provided.”
As they reflected on their actions that day, Sister Lane remembers “feeling a lot of love for those people because a few years ago my family had a house fire, so it brought back a lot of memories of how scary it can be. I was really grateful that I could be there to help.” Sister Sims concluded, “Seeing how willing the missionaries were to jump in and help was amazing. There was no hesitation, even when you could see how big the fire was and the smoke coming out. Everyone just jumped in. If you needed an extra person, you would just ask and another missionary would immediately come to help. I think that it was really cool that so many missionaries were present that day. Anyone who showed up on the scene saw a missionary that day. It was a good opportunity for people to see what we do as missionaries. That is really why we come out on missions—to help people and just love God’s children. We show that love and help them to feel that love too. I thought that was really powerful that day that people could see that we are here to serve Heavenly Father by serving his children. I think that it is really powerful that 80 missionaries who gave up their time and left their homes could come and do things like this.” (Mosiah 2: 17)