Massive Task of Reconstruction Faces Saints in Guatemala
April 1976

“Massive Task of Reconstruction Faces Saints in Guatemala,” Ensign, Apr. 1976, 78–80

Massive Task of Reconstruction Faces Saints in Guatemala

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala—February 4 was but three hours old here when the stillness of the night was shattered by what has been termed the largest earthquake in Central America in modern history.

With its epicenter near the Honduras border, the quake was felt for many hundreds of miles; its most devastating force surfaced west of this city in the two small towns of Patzicia and Chimaltenango.

Guatemala City itself was also ravaged by the quake, but most of the destruction here occurred in the poorer section of this city of 1.5 million.

More than 22,000 people were killed—among them 24 members of the Church—and many thousands were injured. Hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans were left homeless when their adobe structures collapsed as the earth heaved and cracked. Many structures that partially survived the quake fell as the area continually shuddered with more than 700 aftershocks, and another large quake hit four days later.

With the initial quake came shock, confusion, darkness as power lines went down, lack of communication throughout the city as many telephone lines snapped, and fear for the safety of loved ones and friends.

In the midst of all this, the priesthood line of authority and its contact with individual members came into play.

President Robert B. Arnold of the Guatemala Guatemala City Mission tells what happened:

“The quake struck at 3 A.M. and we were awakened by the mission home being violently shaken, the sound of glass shattering, other buildings crumbling, and the ground shifting. As soon as the quake ceased, my wife and I calmed our four children and we went outside. When we were assured that the building was safe, we made telephone contact with some of the zone leaders in the city and found that the damage was not too severe in some areas and no serious injuries were suspected. Other areas of the city were inaccessible by telephone and I had to drive around to the zone leaders and asked them to make a report on the well-being of the Saints as soon as possible. Then we went to other areas that we thought would be susceptible to damage and made the necessary contacts there with the missionaries or the local priesthood leaders.

“In addition to the contacts we were making through the missionaries, the leaders in the two stakes we have in Guatemala City were making contacts through the wards to find out how the members were doing and what help they needed.

“Within a few hours I made an initial report to Salt Lake City that things seemed to be under control and that it seemed that basically everyone was safe. At that time, we thought that most of the destruction had occurred here in the city, but at about 1 P.M., Brother and Sister Edward Powell, Welfare Services missionaries, drove into the city with Elder Randall Ellsworth and a fifteen-year-old boy from Patzicia. They told us that the devastation was total in that town and in the neighboring town of Chimaltenango. It was in these areas that the Saints lost their lives.

“Elder Ellsworth had been pinned by a falling beam as he slept in the chapel at Patzicia, the only Church building to suffer in the quake. It was completely destroyed when the roof shifted and collapsed the walls and the supporting concrete beams. Elder Ellsworth eventually was flown out of Guatemala to Panama and then back to the United States. His situation was such that he required surgery and for his kidneys to function properly he had to be assisted by a dialysis unit. Although he was seriously injured, if he and his companion had been sleeping in the small house that they had been using, they could have been killed because it was destroyed by the quake.

“In consultation with the local priesthood leaders, we utilized fast offering funds to purchase food and plastic sheeting. This plastic was put to good use as temporary shelter for the Saints who were made homeless. We also requested the assistance of doctors, and Welfare Services sent two from Salt Lake City, Dr. Glen C. Griffin and Dr. George F. Snell.

“These two brethren provided invaluable service as they ensured that proper precautions were being taken against the spread of such diseases as typhoid and hepatitis. They went to Patzicia and to Chimaltenango along with the health missionaries. We have four health missionaries serving here with their local companions. They worked with the Saints there, providing instruction on boiling water and creating latrines as preventative health measures. They also conducted the vaccination programs that were necessary.

“Our 230 proselyting missionaries were organized to help the Saints to clear rubble, provide care for the injured, and assist in the distribution of food, clothing, blankets, and other supplies.

“We received tremendous help from the stakes and missions that surround Guatemala, from Mexico, San Salvador, and Honduras. The Saints here have been most appreciative of the Saints everywhere who have come to their aid.

“Our pressing need is no longer food, clothing, or bandages, it is the reconstruction of our homes and of our lives.”

Members of the Patzicia Branch gather in an open-air testimony meeting.

Street scene in Chimaltenango following the earthquake.

The Patzicia chapel was the one Church building lost in the earthquake.