When an Air Force plane brought Randy Ellsworth back home from Central American in February 1976, doctors told him that he might never walk again - that he was lucky to be alive.
The young Mormon missionary from Rockville was the only American known to be injured in the devastating Guatemala earthquake, in which an estimated 18,000 persons were killed. The day Ellsworth came off that Air Force plane, he was strapped to a stretcher, semiconscious and delirious and paralyzed from the waist down.
Yet a few days ago, after an intense 2 1/2-year struggle back to health, 22-year-old Ellsworth marched, on two sound legs, down the aisle of Washington's Mormon Temple with his bride, Silvia (Sherry) Lang, a native of Guatemala.
"What I like in Randy is his determination," 26-year-old Lang said softly as she sat with her fiance in the living room of his Rockville home before the wedding. "He is a very special person."
His determination to make a "110 percent" recovery, to finish his Guatemalan mission and to marry Lang, has guided Ellsworth since his injury - an experience he calls "a test to prove my competence."
Ellsworth's test came at 3:04 a.m. on Feb. 4, 1976, while he was serving as a Mormon missionary to Guatemalan Indians.
Sleeping on a church to be near a sick friend, he awoke to find the world shaking and his body "snapped in two" by a 60-foot concrete and steel beam that had crashed onto his back.
Ellsworth was trapped underneath the beam for six hours before a carpenter removed the floor beneath him with a chain saw. After being freed, he was taken in an old Greyhound bus along dirt roads to a nearby town only to find it demolished by the earthquake. He was then driven five hours to a hospital in Guatemala City and taken to the Canal Zone where his parents, Lois and Nylan Ellsworth of Rockville, flew down to meet him. He was then flown to Andrews Air Force Base.
Doctors found that the beam had crushed Ellsworth's back and seriously injured his kidneys and bladder.
"At first, walking 30 feet from the front door to the lightpost was exhausting - I'd collapse and sleep for the rest of the day," said Ellsworth, who left George Washington University Hospital after four months of intensive physical therapy while the crushed nerves leading to his legs regenerated.
"Every day I'd walk to one more lighpost, then another, using two crutches. In two weeks I went up two blocks, and each day I tried to have a first - even if it was stepping up two stairs instead of one," said Ellsworth, who, in time, traded his crutches for two canes.
In July 1976, supported by leg braces and a single cane, he announced in temple that he was ready to finish his mission in Guatemala.
"Everyone though I was crazy," recalled the clean-cut, courteous young man. "When I received permission from a church official to return to Guatemala, I was so happy I didn't know what to do. Then I went into my bedroom and started to cry."
With a special six-month extension to make up for lost time, Ellsworth was able to complete his two-year missionary service. Last year, he returned to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, to begin his sophomore year of pre-med studies. There he met and fell in love with Sherry Lang.
"I remember talking with a friend in the careteria when I saw a beautiful girl," Ellsworth recalled."All of a sudden I realized I knew her. She was the daughter of (Mormon church) President Lang from Guatemala."
Mormon men are not allowed to date during their missionary years, so he hadn't paid much attention when he met Lang in Guatemala. Ellsworth explained.
Still wearing braces on his legs, he approached her, reintroduced himself and asked her to a football game.
"I had heard a lot about him, I saw him a few times, and he impressed me very much," Lang said shyly. "I liked him, but he was so famous and, I thought, so far to reach."
The couple began a classically whirlwind romance, attending concerts, school functions and sports events. When Ellsworth worked out in the gym, swimming and lifting weights to strengthen his leg muscles, Lang would stop by with encouragement.
"I began working out in the gym, too, for personal exercise (and) to be able to do a lot of things with," Lang laughed. "Sharing things meant a lot."
last May, they announced their engagement.
After their brief camping honeymoon, they plan to return to Utah. While Ellsworth finished his studies, his wife will teach Spanish to children enrolled in a special, intensive language program.
Someday, they hope to return to the Washington area where Randy Ellsworth would like to attend medical school.
"My dream, if avenues open up, would be to open a clinic in Guatemala," said Ellsworth.
Even though his determination was a major factor in his recovery, Ellsworth says his faith sustained him throughout his recovery.
"In all honesty," he said, "I feel I've made a positive experience out of something that could have kept me flat on my back for the rest of my life.
I attribute my recovery to faith in my heavenly father and a lot of hard work. If you put in your part, the Lord will do his."