SALT LAKE CITY – A young Mormon missionary from Utah who previously lived through cancer was among the survivors of the Spain train crash that left 80 dead.
Stephen Ward, 18, is hospitalized with a fractured vertebra in his neck but is expected to make a full recovery, his father, Raymond Ward, said Thursday.
The son arrived in Spain six weeks ago to start a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He spent those first six weeks at a training center in Madrid learning Spanish and how to be a missionary, his dad said. On Wednesday, Stephen Ward boarded the train from Madrid to head to the community where he was sent to serve: El Ferrol, a coastal city in northwest Spain.
But he never made it to meet his missionary partner there. The train hurtled off the rails and smashed into a security wall as it rounded a bend about 60 miles north of Santiago de Compostela.
Stephen Ward is among more than 90 people who remain hospitalized. Doctors are trying to determine if he needs surgery, his father said.
"When we talked with him he was in good spirits," said Raymond Ward, 45. "He was still joking around with us as he always does."
Stephen Ward's parents knew he was scheduled to leave Madrid Wednesday, but they didn't know what train he would be on. When his father saw news of the crash on his cellphone, he figured it had nothing to do with his son.
But an hour later, a Mormon church official in Spain called Raymond Ward and told him his son was on the train — and survived. The mission president in Spain is an orthopedic surgeon and traveled to the hospital to look at X-rays and help figure out what needed to be done.
Raymond Ward father said his phone conversations with his son have centered mainly around Stephen Ward's health. But his son has told him he remembers a woman next to him getting thrown across the train and seeing bags fly.
"He thought he was in a dream," Raymond Ward said.
A picture of the 6-foot-6 Stephen Ward appeared in a Spanish newspaper, blood running down his face, his father said. Stephen Ward gave an interview from his hospital bed to The Daily Telegraph newspaper in London recounting the harrowing experience. That newspaper has a picture of him wearing a neck brace and a bandage over his eye.
"He looks terrible, but he's alive so that's good," Raymond Ward said.
Stephen Ward has spent countless hours in hospitals already in his life, his father said. At 14, he was diagnosed with a rare cancer known as Burkitt's lymphoma. He had to have a bone marrow transplant and nearly died two or three times, his father said.
"Not many people come that close to death twice before age 20," his father said. "I'm just grateful that he's alive and that's he my son."
He's been healthy since then, and is a gregarious, happy young man who plays piano and excelled in school. He left for his mission after one year at Brigham Young University, where he is studying chemical engineering.
Stephen Ward is among a wave of new, younger missionaries allowed to serve sooner under historic new rules announced last year by LDS officials lowering the minimum age for missionaries from 21 to 19 for women; and 19 to 18 for men.
Stephen Ward had no hesitation in deciding to serve his proselyting mission sooner, his father said. He had been looking forward to serving since he was young and was ecstatic to get his call to Spain where he could continue learning Spanish.
The family said they'll learn more about what his recovery will require in the next day or so, but Stephen Ward already has told them he wants to continue his mission.
"If it's reasonable, he'll stay there," Raymond Ward said.