Dressed in the standard issue white-shirt-and-tie, he and his “companion” Yuji Aiura — Mormon missionaries always travel in pairs — had arrived by bicycle to a small restaurant in Tagajo, a river town about two miles from the ocean.
They were discussing the power of God with two local Japanese when the shaking began. They ignored it at first says Hiltbrand — there are so many small quakes in this region — but not for long.
The growing fury of the rumbling drove them to take shelter under a table. Then they decided to run outside.
“There was a loud bang and everything was moving in every direction,” Hiltbrand says. “Cars were rocking on the street.”But the earthquake was just the beginning of their troubles.
When it stopped, the two missionaries jumped on their bikes and rode to check on their apartment, then headed to the Mormon church in Tagajo, dodging newly created crevices and open manholes.
Any illusion that the disaster was over quickly passed as traffic built—with cars heading inland toward Sendai. Then police and fire vehicle sirens began blaring tsunami warnings.When the water subsided, Elder Hiltbrand and Elder Aiura made their way to Sendai with the aid of a local church member, arriving some 24 hours after the earthquake. We're glad to hear they came through unscathed and undaunted by the experience.
Hiltbrand and Aiura climbed to the second story of the church, a building that is raised 4 to 5 feet off the ground.
The watched out the window as the water level rose rapidly, aided by the river that wraps around the town—and sucked their bicycles into a torrent, along with cars and debris.
Water began pouring through the church’s mail slot in the door of the first floor.
“From the second floor it sounded like a waterfall,” said Hiltbrand. “I went downstairs, and as I watched it coming in … the glass on the door shattered and water came pouring in.”
For his part, Hiltbrand is itching to get back to the disaster zone.
“I really want to be in Tagajo helping people,” he says. “I have many friends in Tagajo and I don’t know how they are. I don’t know how they will clean it all up and I want to help.”