Story and photos by Thom Curtis, Ph.D.

SOUTH KONA, Hawaii — Most missionaries look forward to Sunday as a change of pace from the daily routines.  It’s a day to rest from their normal labors and recharge their spiritual batteries. 

For two elders in South Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii, September 15 started out as another beautiful Sabbath morning in paradise.  That changed abruptly at seven minutes after seven, when their world literally began to shake apart.

Elder Geoffery Chatham, 20, from Corona, California, and Elder Greg Jolley, 21, from Provo, Utah, feel blessed to have survived the 6.7 and 6.0 magnitude earthquakes that devastated the Island of Hawaii and were felt throughout the archipelago.  As Elder Chatham showered and Elder Jolley studied scriptures in bed, they both noticed a slight shaking that felt like a large truck lumbering up the steep driveway next to their small home on the grounds of the Kona Stake’s Keei Ward.

But it wasn’t a truck and the shaking didn’t stop. It crescendoed until the walls of their little cement block home began to move as if they were made of rubber. 

Elder Jolley watched in amazement and thought, “Nothing can make the walls of this building do that.”  He said the shaking went on and on, “I thought it would go away, but it didn’t.” 

He started to get out of bed to escape the house. “I wanted to grab my journal because it is the only thing I care about.  Then I realized I needed to put some clothes on.”   Suddenly, a large mirror fell off the wall, hit a dresser and shattered on the floor.  He couldn’t get out of bed because his feet were bare and shards of mirror were everywhere. 

Elder Chatham, who was in the shower at the time, also thought to escape as he heard rocks from the adjacent retaining wall begin to fall. He had experienced many earthquakes growing up in Southern California. “I usually sleep through earthquakes, but I never experienced one that moved side-to-side like that,” he said.  “The worst I had ever experienced was a few pictures would fall off the walls.”

He rushed out dripping wet, but fortunately realized his state of undress before reaching the door and returned for a towel. He recounted, “It started as a slow rumble and moved up until the whole house was moving from side-to-side for thirty seconds to a minute.”

By that time they began to hear loud bangs on their roof.  Boulders were falling from the large wall that holds up the parking lot and crashing down unto their shingles. With a huge blast, the ward’s large satellite dish with its heavy concrete foundation broke loose from the parking lot and punctured their roof.

Rocks, debris, and even a satellite dish atop and surrounding their house show how close the elders came to disaster.

Eventually the shaking stopped, but it was followed by another 6.0 quake that came about seven minutes later.  Many aftershocks occurred throughout the day. Elder Chatham summed up things up by saying, “This experience strengthened our testimony that the Lord’s hand is in everything.  He was watching over us.”

The missionaries’ home was one of many earthquake casualties on Sunday.  The Keei Ward building suffered significant damage, and about two-thirds of the facility was taped-off as unusable.  Ceilings collapsed and light fixtures hung down by their wires in many classrooms.

From the exterior, the Keei Ward building appears undamaged.

A closer inspection shows that two-thirds of the building has been taped off as unusable.

Fortunately, the chapel had only minor damage, and leaders determined that it was safe to hold a brief sacrament meeting.  The chapel and overflow area filled as members gathered to partake of the sacrament and bear testimonies less than two hours after the first quake struck.  Many had homes that were severely damaged, but the priority of the members was to attend to their families’ spiritual needs first and worry about their property later.

An interior shot of some of the damage done to the Keei Ward building.

When phone service was restored, the missionaries talked with their mission president, Ronald K. Hawkins, and were told that all missionaries in the state had made it through the ordeal unscathed.  Although many members suffered home damage, there have been no significant injuries reported among the approximately 40,000 Latter-day Saints in Hawaii.

Fortunately, meetings were not being held at the ward building at the time of the earthquake.

Editor’s note:  Elder Geoffery Chatham, who will celebrate his twenty-first birthday this week, is the son of Chad and Linda Chatham of Corona, California.  Elder Greg Jolley is the son of Greg and Marilee Jolley of Provo, Utah.