In 2002 our family decided to take a big vacation before we sent two of our children off on full-time missions. And it didn’t take much thinking for us to decide where we wanted to go—the open house and dedication of the Nauvoo Illinois Temple. As I sat with my family in the temple, my mind wandered back 28 years to April 3, 1974—the last time I was in Nauvoo.
A convert of eight months, I was on a spring field trip in Nauvoo with my seminary teacher and four other members of our class from Fort Wayne, Indiana. We had a wonderful tour of the city, including the site of the original Nauvoo Temple. Little was left of it. Mobs had ravaged and burned the temple after the Saints left. The exterior walls had remained until a tornado destroyed the north wall on May 27, 1850. The south and east walls were so badly damaged that they were torn down the following day.
Many experiences in Nauvoo helped solidify my young and growing testimony, but one experience left me feeling unsettled. During our visit I met someone who strongly challenged the truthfulness of the Church. I had not encountered that type of opposition to the Church since my baptism. On the morning of the day we were to go home, April 3, 1974, I awoke at 5:00 a.m. and lay in bed wondering if I had made a mistake by being baptized into the Church. Had I really felt sweet, burning answers to my prayers eight months earlier when I asked my Father in Heaven about the truthfulness of the Restoration?
I got up, dressed, and left the fold-up trailer where we were sleeping. I started walking, not really even certain where I was going. I was just trying to walk away from the dark and awful feelings that were encompassing me. I felt as if I were suffocating and wondered what had come over me. At the same time, the feeling carried with it a sense of extreme fear and warning. I could not explain it. It was too big for me to comprehend with my 17 years of knowledge.
Eventually, I found myself in a beautiful place, right in front of a sunstone from the Nauvoo Temple. I cried and cried over several things, including the once beautiful and exquisite temple that had been destroyed by hate and malice and complicated misunderstandings.
Soon I began to do the one thing I knew would bring me comfort. I prayed. After some time of sitting there crying and praying for answers, I felt the Holy Ghost. It reiterated to me what I had learned during my conversion to the Church—that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were prophets of God. I knew without doubt that I had made the right choice in being baptized.
As that sweet communion with the Spirit continued, I asked Heavenly Father what He wanted of me and why I felt this huge sense of foreboding. Gradually, a sweet, calm peacefulness came upon me, and I felt I would be all right. I felt I knew what Heavenly Father wanted of me. I promised Him I would spend my life teaching and testifying of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I returned to our fold-up trailer and slipped back into my sleeping bag until it was time to get up and leave for home.
All day on the drive home, black clouds and thunderstorms seemed to follow us through every town and down every road. Around 4:00 p.m. we stopped and ate. When we got back on the road, I fell asleep. At 5:15 p.m. I woke up and discovered we were in Monticello, Indiana, about 100 miles from home.
We turned onto the bridge crossing the Tippecanoe River, and suddenly we were hit by a powerful tornado. Large hail pelted the van. The next thing I knew the van began spinning around and around as it was lifted about 20 feet in the air. I remember well the fearful feeling of complete helplessness. The van, now filled with our screams, kept twisting and turning. I put my arms over my head. Soon the van plunged 70 feet into the Tippecanoe River, and we were in water, a lot of water. The rear window of the van had been blown out, so I swam up and out of the back of the van. Everything had happened so quickly that I couldn’t fully comprehend what was going on.
I climbed on top of the van and looked around. In the minutes that followed, I saw our teacher and one of my friends struggling in the raging water. They were weak and incoherent—and then they disappeared from view. Soon the van sank into the dark, cold water with a loud noise.
I had difficulty swimming and staying afloat in the turbulent waters. At first, I begged Heavenly Father to let me live. I gave Him many reasons why I should—a mission, marriage, children. But then I felt guilty and in a lot of pain. I knew in my heart that no one else had survived the accident, and suddenly I couldn’t think of a reason why I should.
I was being tossed around and felt as though I were being ripped in half by the churning water. In my confusion, I began to beg Heavenly Father to let me die. I put my face in the water and let it pull me down deep under the water. I was trying to let Heavenly Father take me home.
As I went down into the dark and turbulent water, I began to think clearly, “No, as long as you have a fighting chance, fight!” I did fight and soon felt as if I had been catapulted up to the surface. The tornado passed, and the rain, thunder, lightning, and waves suddenly stopped. In the beauty of the light, I knew I would not die. I received a strong impression that I still had a mission to fulfill on earth.
I was able to swim on my back until I saw a concrete pier, but I was too weak to lift myself out of the water. I continued to float on my back. Then I felt a tree branch gently bump the back of my head. Once again, I felt Heavenly Father had provided a way for me. I used it to pull myself up and out of the water.
A woman who lived nearby found me and took me into her home to rest until help arrived. I had a concussion, my back was injured, and my forearms were torn and bloody. The doctors said if my head had taken what my arms took, I likely would not have survived.
Twenty-eight years later as I sat in the Nauvoo Illinois Temple waiting for the dedication to begin, I felt I had come full circle. Once the remnants of the Nauvoo Temple had been destroyed by a tornado. Now a beautiful new temple had risen in place of the first one. I too had been battered by a tornado, and I had been given a chance to make something new and beautiful of my life. I remembered the pain, the fear of being in those waters, and the guilt of survival; but then I remembered the light and hope that filled the air after the tornado had passed. Over the years, the gospel had filled me with light and hope that had helped me heal after the tornado had nearly taken my life. My testimony was strong; nevertheless, I had carried an unnecessary burden of guilt for many years because I was spared from death while four talented and lovely young women and our seminary teacher were not. Now I felt healed. I knew I had been meant to remain on earth to finish my course.
Sitting in the new temple that had been built on the site of the destroyed Nauvoo Temple, I was filled with light and hope, and I too felt restored. I am most grateful for my Savior and His Atonement, which allows me to continue working on this unfinished project—building my life according to His plan for me.