Mormon missionary wounded in Brussels bombing recalls the first person who came to his aid: a Muslim woman

Utahn Mason Wells dodged attacks in Boston and France before being seriously hurt in Belgium.

(Courtesy | Suzanne Winchester) Mason Wells and Joseph Dresden Empey at University Hospital.

It would have been easy for Mason Wells to give in to hate after he was seriously wounded in last year’s terrorist bombings in Brussels.

But, on the morning of March 22, 2016, bloodied and stumbling out of the Islamic State group-directed carnage inside the Zaventem airport and collapsing onto a sidewalk, the 19-year-old Mormon missionary from Sandy found himself being cared for by a young Middle Eastern woman.

In his new book, “Left Standing,” Wells writes that while panic-stricken, scarred survivors streamed away from the airport, this woman deliberately walked toward the danger and into the hellish aftermath.

“She had noticed me unable to move on the ground and came over to crouch beside me. Her name was Isabel,” he recalls. “Hey, hey, you’re OK,” she said as Wells looked at her with unease. “You are hurt. How can I help you?”

Wells — shredded by shrapnel wounds to his legs and a foot, and scorched by second-degree burns to his face and a hand — looked up to see tears filling the eyes of his unexpected benefactor.

“Though distraught, the look on her face was one of peace,” Wells writes. “She had the look of an angel, displaying a quiet calm in the storm that made me feel that somehow everything would be OK.”

As Isabel sought to comfort Wells, he talked about his Mormon background and duties. She then revealed to him that she was Muslim.

More than 30 people perished and hundreds more were injured in that attack — carried out by two suicide bombers — as well as another blast at the nearby Maalbeek metro station.

It was not the first time Wells had encountered terrorist violence. He was near the finish line in Boston in 2013, when bombs went off during the city’s namesake marathon. Later, as a Mormon missionary in France, he found himself running for his life amid civil and religious unrest after coordinated terror attacks rocked that country in late 2015.

Then, after two close calls, came Brussels. Did Wells’ luck finally run out? Or did divine providence help see him through every time?

For his part, the 21-year-old returned missionary chooses to see his injuries as a sort of blessing and his survival as nothing short of miraculous.

Brussels and beyond

Wells was one of four LDS missionaries hurt that day in Belgium. Richard Norby, then 66, of Lehi, and 20-year-old Joseph Empey of Santa Clara, also were seriously wounded. A fourth, Fanny Rachel Clain, a 20-year-old Frenchwoman, suffered minor injuries.

While Wells faced a long recovery that would include six operations, skin grafts and excruciating therapy sessions, he eventually recovered. He sees that as a miracle, as well as the faith he found to persevere through the agony. The payoff came in June, when he realized a lifelong dream of entering the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

Wells previously had passed the entrance requirements for the academy right out of Highland’s Lone Peak High School. Inexplicably, he did not get an invitation, instead accepting his fateful Mormon mission call.

“I knew that God always knew best, but I couldn’t bring myself to accept that this was best, that this was happening,” Wells writes of the disappointment. “Only now, looking back, it is obvious that it wasn’t for nothing — that there was a grander plan.”

In April of this year, once more having passed academic and physical entrance requirements, Wells finally got his appointment to the academy’s Class of 2021.

(Courtesy photo) Mason Wells is now at the Naval Academy.

Empey, too, is moving on with life. He was peppered with shrapnel from the bombs from the waist down, and suffered burns to his hands and face. He has some scars, and he still carries “quite a few pieces of shrapnel” that caused long-term nerve damage to his right leg and foot, but Empey insists he is “100 percent recovered.”

Like it did for Wells, Isabel’s compassion that day helped Empey to not harbor hatred.

“As far as Islam goes, I have nothing but respect and love for the people of that faith,” Empey says. “She was a true example of the Islamic faith, using it for good instead of to hurt people.”

The horror of Brussels also helped Empey pick a career path. He recently completed training and was certified as an emergency medical technician.

“I’m planning on becoming a paramedic firefighter,” he says.

“At the airport, the blast knocked me unconscious. When I woke up, I knew I had to find the other missionaries and make sure they were OK. I saw EMTs and paramedics on the scene treating everyone,” Empey recalls. “That made me interested in emergency response work.”

For the older Norby, the explosions nearly proved fatal. Belgian doctors put him into a medically induced coma as they treated him for extensive shrapnel wounds, broken bones and second- and third-degree burns over 35 percent of his body.

It was nearly a month after the bombings that Norby returned home to continue his recovery at University Hospital in Salt Lake City.

Norby is still awaiting corrective surgery for his left heel, but otherwise says “everything now is pretty well healed.”

He uses crutches and has no feeling in his left leg, but Norby remains optimistic about a full recovery.

“It’s a little precarious for me to walk at times, and I’ll always have a little limp,” he says. “But I’m really in a good place. I just think of others, like a friend of mine now with leukemia. ... Everyone has a story to tell; I have no real complaints.”

Norby is excited by Wells’ book. “He’s a fine young man,” he says, “and he has quite a story to tell.”

Actually, stories, plural, because readers of Wells’ book — co-written with friends Tyler Beddoes and Billy Hallowell — will learn about those earlier near misses in Boston and France.

The good, the bad and the unexplainable

Wells, along with his father, was in Boston on April 15, 2013, to cheer on his mother in the city’s Patriots’ Day marathon. Father and son had just rounded a corner by the finish line near Copley Square when the first of two deadly bombs exploded.

Three people were killed and hundreds more wounded, some maimed for life. Wells writes that it was his dad’s sudden impulse to cross a street, taking a shorter route to the finish line, that shielded them from the blast.

His mother, though shaken, also escaped injury.

As a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Wells also was in France during the November 2015 shootings and bombings that left 130 dead in Paris and St. Denis. He was stationed in Rouen, 80 miles from Paris.

Missionaries had been periodically locked down as the crises staggered France. While not in Paris when those particular attacks occurred, Wells and other LDS proselytizers witnessed the panic and civil unrest that followed. Police vehicles and heavily armed officers flooded the streets.

Once, Wells and a missionary companion endured “a maelstrom of angry chants in Arabic” from an approaching mob. The two ducked down a side street to safety.

Later, Wells writes, he somberly watched as thousands of French citizens marched in a candlelight vigil of mourning.

“[We] were overcome by the reverential procession that stretched in front of us. ... We left the scene behind us and the only thing I could think about was how horrible the families of the victims must have felt.”

Then, Wells, having escaped — providentially, he believes — injury in two previous terrorist-related incidents, found himself the victim.

“My life was changed forever. Every day I wake up to a scarred hand,” he says in an interview. “I’ll carry shrapnel scars and skin grafts for the rest of my life. I’ve chosen to let those reminders draw me back to the heroes and blessings on that cold March day ... rather than the pain.”

And now, some 18 months of suffering, gratitude, deepening faith and perspective later, his thoughts often return to “Isabel, the young Muslim woman [who] stayed with me on the sidewalk.”

“I still haven’t been able to find her [but] the impression she left on me will stay with me through the day I die,” Wells says. “Her presence [was] a stark contrast to the killers. … She was proof that good and bad exist among all people in all walks of life.”

Along with the visible reminders of his wounds, Wells says, he also will live with the conviction that “the actions of terrorists do not represent the beliefs of the hundreds of Muslims I talked with during my missionary service.”

Why were he and his companions spared that morning in Belgium when so many others were not? Wells does not attempt to read either the mind of God or plumb the depths of fate.

“The things I’ve experienced in life have added to my confidence that God lives and is watchful of our lives,” Wells explains. “By embracing hope in good things to come, we can make the hard times less challenging, and find greater faith amid chaos.”

He adds: “Our lives are our own to decide. We choose to be survivors, not victims.”

So while terrorism finally caught up with Wells in Belgium, the hatred behind those attacks never did.