Editor’s Note: Ghana has just finished its three days of mourning for the 152 people that were killed either in the gas station fire where so many were huddled under the gas station canopy to get out of the rain or in the floods that ensued down many streets and in humble houses. Many Ghanians have not had the opportunity to learn to swim.
The following is a letter from Elder Bowring of the Ghana Accra West Mission that he sent home to his family this week about his experiences. He was originally a Liberian Missionary that came to Accra after the outbreak of Ebola. He will be released to return home to the US next month.
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What I am about to share with you is the most life-changing event that I have ever experienced. It started on a regular Wednesday evening around 6pm. We were out proselyting in Accra, Ghana when it suddenly began to rain. We helped as many people as we could until the storm forced us inside at about 7:30pm. Around 9pm I checked on the gutter right outside of our apartment only to discover that it was a raging rapid completely overtaking the curb and street. I couldn’t believe it! Huge chunks of debris were quickly flowing by our door as they made their way down the street. A few minutes later we received a call from our Bishop asking us to please go and check on his family since he couldn’t get to them.
My companion, Elder Vandehei (from Tennessee), and I quickly left the safety of our apartment and headed into the storm. By the time we got to the end of our road we were treading water up to our waists. When we got to the main road, there was a heavy current that almost swept us away. I remember looking back at Elder Vandehei and thinking, “are we really going to do this?”, but I had a strong feeling that we needed to keep going.
By the time we got to our Bishop’s street, the current had gotten stronger and we had to move along the side of the street by the shops where the current was weaker. We slowly pushed on until the water got so deep that we were forced to start swimming. We heard many people yelling at us from buildings along the street, “Where are you going?” “Turn around its not safe!” But we pushed forward. We eventually ran into our recent convert, Phillip, who was standing on a wall, completely terrified. I will never forget the look of terror on his face. Phillip said, “Elder Vandehei, lets pray!” So, as we waded in what was once a street corner, surrounded by the constant crash and flash lightning and thunder, our recent convert prayed for us all, begging our Father in Heaven to please stop the rain.
That is when I started to realize just how serious the situation was. I was scared about what we were going to find at our Bishop’s home. As we were swimming along with the current, Elder Vandehei and I bumped into a truck floating down the street. We finally got to his house and found his wife with their 1 month old daughter strapped to her back, her mother holding her 2 year old son and they were at the highest point in their house, under a small tin shelter with water past their knees and rising fast. When we got there, I literally did not know what to do. I feel like this is the first time in my life where I felt like I couldn’t get out of a situation by myself and that there was nothing that we could do to help ourselves. We were helpless.
Then I received a prompting that we needed to pray together. So there in the pouring rain, water past our knees, flashes of lighting going on all around us, I offered the most sincere and heartfelt prayer I have ever given. I was praying with all my heart that He would show us what we needed to do, and that He would protect us, that we had done everything that we had been asked to do, had been faithful in keeping his commandments and that He was the only one who could help us.
After that prayer, miracles started to occur. About 3 minutes after the prayer, Elder Vandehei spotted what looked like a bucket floating in the water, so he went and retrieved it. It turned out to be a plastic trash can, with a lid on top and in nice condition. We decided that we needed to get the baby out of there quickly, since the flooding was getting worse. The Bishop’s wife trusted us enough to place the baby in the bottom of the trash can and then to lightly put the lid on top and then to attempt to swim it out to safety.
We couldn’t go back the way we had come because the current was just too strong, so we headed the other direction, where we knew an overpass was located (and hopefully dry ground) about 100 yards away. Our original plan was to take the baby up to the overpass and then try to get to the church where we thought our bishop was. The last thing I remember as we set out with the baby floating in the garbage can was the Bishop’s wife pleading with us to keep her baby safe! I was at the back of the garbage can, holding it up while kicking my legs to keep my head above the raging water. Elder Vandehei was in the front leading the way. Luckily I knew the area and some obstacles that were under the water so as we went along I tried my best to talk to Vandehei to guide him to where I thought some high ground was located.
A miracle occurred as we were able to find a block wall and I could hold onto the top of the wall and the bucket with the baby inside as Elder Vandehei would float about 10 feet at a time to go and make sure that everything was safe ahead. We did that for about 50 yards, praying the entire time. We swam passed a two story building and there were some people up there yelling at us that it wasn’t safe to go to the overpass. We had been ignoring people telling us those kinds of things all night but we stopped and thought about it for a moment. We had told the Bishop’s wife that we were going to take the baby to the church, but now these people were telling us to just bring the baby upstairs. We decided that the best thing to do was to take the baby up into the building to find a dry room.
As we were leading the baby inside, I realized that I hadn’t heard the baby cry for some time and my heart absolutely stopped. The worst thoughts raced through my mind about how was I going to live with myself if that baby hadn’t made it through our incredible journey. I opened the top and stuck my hand inside and felt the baby and she was still breathing. I can’t express the relief I felt when I knew she was still alive.
We got her inside through the stairwell and the residents took her, and some women got her some blankets and wrapped up the baby and put her on a mattress. I was so happy to know that she was safe. We then realized that our missionary roommates had no idea what was going on. We had told them we were going to be back within 15 minutes when we left. Someone had a phone and so we used it to call them. Come to find out our apartment was also flooding and they had put everything up on the top bunk beds and were on the roof of our landlord’s house. They also said that President Hill, our Mission President, was worried sick about us, so we quickly gave him a call and then we swam back to Bishop’s house. We told the Bishop’s wife that her baby was safe and she was so happy, but we still had their family there and the water wasn’t going down and things looked like they were getting worse.
We all decided that it would be best for the Bishop’s wife to go and be with her baby, so we found a large wooden shelf that was floating in the compound yard and we came and put her on the top of it as a home-made raft. She was pretty scared, not one of them knew how to swim and she was so nervous. We already knew the way and we were able to get her to the two story building pretty quickly. Once inside, they gave her some dry clothes and she was able to be with her baby.
I felt so happy that they were together and that we had been protected thus far. We went outside on the balcony of the house to figure out what we were going to do next. Suddenly we heard a huge explosion. I turned around and saw a huge cloud of black smoke and huge flames rising up. There were people screaming on the overpass and running. I felt like I was in a movie with rain, thunder, and flooding on both sides of me and then a huge fire ball burning in front of me with people screaming and running away. I turned to Elder Vandehei and asked him if this was the Second Coming. It turned out to be the gas station had exploded and it was probably only a half a mile away from us. Unfortunately, we later learned that over 100 people had perished in the explosion. Throngs of people had been trying to stay out of the rain in the gas station canopy and in nearby stores that also went up in flames.
We looked down and gratefully saw the water had started to recede. That was probably one of the greatest feelings ever to see the water level starting to drop. We decided to go down to the Bishop’s house again but as we got the bottom of the stairwell, the people at the top started shouting at us that they had relatives inside a room at the bottom of the building who needed help. We had to budge the door open, it was stuck but it took both of us and all the strength we had to force open the door.
To be honest, I don’t know how the people survived in that room with the height of the water, but they had a 12 year old daughter inside who was very traumatized. They wanted to send her to the top floor. I put her on my back (the water was probably about waist deep now) and she about choked me since she was holding on to me so tight. We were able to get her to safety as well. We then headed back to Bishop’s house and I heard “Elder Bowring, Elder Vandehei” and then I got close and realized that is was our Bishop and he just looked at me and gave me the biggest hug of my life and said thank you. I can’t describe how wonderful that felt.
He explained to us that he had been trying to get to his house ever since he had called us but that he just physically couldn’t. He said that we were the last phone call he had made before his phone died. There was one point where he was over looking at the raging torrent in his street and he just bowed his head and just prayed that his family would be safe. We were a literal answer to his prayer. We went to his house and picked up his 2 year old boy and then we took our bishop to his wife. I can’t describe the feelings I had to see that family reunited after all that had happened.
I have an overwhelming sense of gratitude to our Heavenly Father. He was literally there with us every step of the way, and I could feel His presence through it all. When we had the baby, he prompted us to know what to do, where to go and He protected us. He helped us make the decision to take the baby to the building instead of the church where our Bishop would not have been waiting.
I recall the promise that I received in my patriarchal blessing and my setting apart as a missionary that I would see dangers and be in scary situations but that if I was faithful to the gospel, then I could approach life with a sense of peace and direction and know that things would work out. I have seen that promise fulfilled so many times on my mission but never so much as I did Wednesday night. The Lord was with us without a doubt and we were protected. I am so grateful and my testimony has grown so much. I know that God is always there and He will always fulfill his promises as long as we do our part.
We finally arrived at the mission home after midnight. Elders Forrest and Uzoho were already there. Elder Vandehei and I showed up in cutoff tee shirts, shoeless and soaked from head to toe. I’m sure we were quite the sight for President Hill.
We are now homeless; we had to stay at the Mission Home for 2 nights and now we are with the AP’s and the office elders. Most of my belongings are ok, but some got destroyed in the flood. All that stuff doesn’t matter to me now though, I am just happy that those we helped are safe. I hope that this letter does some small justice to what has happened this week.
Love you all,