Crisis Christmas in Colombia


The call came at midnight on 21 December 1995—a large airliner with many U.S. citizens aboard had crashed near Cali, Colombia. The staff of the U.S. Embassy in Colombia needed help, and as a consular officer serving at the embassy in neighboring Panama, my assistance was urgently needed.

I packed my bags and left the next morning, marveling at how bad the timing was. Christmas was only three days away, and my wife would now be spending the holiday alone in Panama, far from loved ones. What’s more, we had just discovered that, after seven anxious years, we were finally expecting our first child. That news had promised to make the holidays extra special.

Any self-pity was quickly overshadowed by the crisis atmosphere I encountered upon arrival in Cali. After a quick strategy session, I was whisked 50 miles away to the small town of Buga, closest to the crash site in the mountains. A small gymnasium in the town had been converted into a makeshift morgue, and the roar of helicopters bringing the remains of crash victims down from the mountainside continually filled the air. The town was besieged by family members desperately seeking news of their loved ones, and I was quickly put to work assisting the relatives of U.S. citizens who had been on the plane.

It was a grim task, pleading with some to be patient until rescue workers could recover all the remains from the mountainside, accompanying others into the gym to view and identify the bodies of their loved ones. This shock was usually followed by extensive and tedious paperwork needed to return the remains to the United States for burial. It took all the strength I had to lend support and comfort to these people hour after hour.

The hours became days, and suddenly it was Christmas Eve. In Buga, however, the normally festive occasion was all but forgotten under the pall of grief that covered the town. That day the largest number of crash victims was recovered, and an additional planeload of relatives arrived from the United States needing assistance. My colleagues and I worked from dawn into the late evening. Finally, on the verge of exhaustion, we were forced to call a halt for the night. It was nearly midnight when I retired to my little room at the town’s only hotel.

The day had left me totally drained physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Yet the somber sights and sounds of the preceding hours and days refused to leave my mind, making it impossible to rest. With a start I realized that it was Christmas Eve, nearly forgotten amid the day’s tumult.

In need of comfort, I opened my scriptures and read the familiar story of the birth of the Savior from Luke 2. The words of the angel to the shepherds seemed to leap out at me from the page: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:10).

I turned to the Book of Mormon and read again the moving story in 3 Nephi of the humble believers in Christ, facing certain death at the hands of their persecutors if the sign of the Savior’s birth was not given. My heart stirred as never before as the Lord answered Nephi’s earnest prayer. “Lift up your head and be of good cheer; for behold, the time is at hand, and on this night shall the sign be given, and on the morrow come I into the world” (3 Ne. 1:13).

Closing the book, I knelt on the bare floor and poured out my soul to Heavenly Father. I prayed for my dear wife, anxious that she not feel alone on this special holiday. I prayed for the families of the crash victims, that they might be comforted. And then, as I expressed my humble thanks to Heavenly Father for the marvelous gift of his Only Begotten Son, a great feeling of peace and calm settled over me like a mantle. My heart burned as I felt the Lord’s love encircle me, and in an instant the anguish of the previous days was washed away. In its place was a deep testimony and appreciation, stronger than ever before, of the reality of the Savior’s divine mission and his infinite love for all those he came into the world to save.

I received quiet reassurance that my wife was being watched over in my absence. And I felt the Savior’s compassion for all those grieving for the loss of their loved ones, as I recalled to mind the calming words of the Master: “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).

My colleagues and I arose early on Christmas morning to return to the morgue for another long and difficult day. Yet for me the heavyheartedness of the previous days was gone, replaced by a sense of peace and greater compassion for those I was there to help. Several days later I returned to Panama to enjoy a belated Christmas with my wife. I am sure that with time, my memories of my “crisis Christmas in Colombia” will fade. But my recollection will always be bright of that Christmas Eve, when the Spirit spoke peace to my soul and testified to me of the divine mission of Jesus Christ. I felt in some ways perhaps as Nephi might have felt on that holy night so long ago—the Lord had answered my prayer and I could truly “lift up [my] head and be of good cheer” because the Savior had been born into the world.

[illustration] Detail from The Birth of Jesus, by Carl Heinrich Bloch, det Nationalhistoriske Museum på Frederiksborg, Hillerød

[photo] Photography by Steve Bunderson; posed by model

Blair L. LaBarge is a member of the Cardenas Ward, Panama City Panama Stake.