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Minnesota seminary student believed dead in Haiti earthquake

A seminarian at Wartburg Theological Seminary who parents are Lutheran pastors living in Duluth is believed dead in the earthquake that struck Haiti on Tuesday.

Ben Larson, his wife, Renee Splichal Larson, and his cousin, Jonathan Larson of Red Wing, Minn., were doing mission work in Haiti when the earthquake struck.

Ben Larson's mother, April Ulring Larson, is pastor of First Lutheran Church in Duluth.

Jonathan Larson's father, David, had received only second- and third-hand reports about his son's status until early this morning, when officials at Wartburg, located in Dubuque, Iowa, e-mailed the latest news.

"It is believed now that Ben has been killed in the Haiti Quake," wrote the Rev. Duane H. Larson, Wartburg president.

"Both Jonathan Larson and Renee Splichal Larson are together safely. They were in the same building as Ben when the quake hit. They made it out, eventually found each other, then returned to St. Joseph guest house in the attempt to rescue Ben, to no avail," he said.

David Larson said this morning that his son is at the embassy in Port-au-Prince with his cousin's widow. They were expected to be flown to the Dominican Republic and then to Miami.

"I expect that Jon will arrive in Minneapolis later today," his father said.

According to David Larson, the three young people flew to Haiti on Monday to work with the newly formed Lutheran Church there.

Ben and Jonathan Larson -- a 2002 Red Wing High School graduate -- are senior students at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's seminary, and Renee Larson also is studying for the ministry.

Jonathan Larson is from United Lutheran Church in Red Wing, where he is scheduled to preach and lead an adult enrichment hour Jan.

24, which is "Local Mission Sunday" at the church.

The three were staying at the guest house of a small orphanage that serves about 20 young boys in Port-au-Prince and doing mission work during a two-week "January term" at the school, David Larson said.

The young men were traveling and teaching lay leaders, he said, while Renee Larson was interviewing people while working on a thesis about the new Lutheran Church of Haiti, which is an outgrowth of the ELCA Synod in Florida and is only about a year old.

The magnitude-7 earthquake struck late Tuesday afternoon, flattening much of the capital city, which has some 2 million residents. News reports say the death toll could reach tens of thousands. Hospitals, schools, prisons, and even the huge National Palace toppled.

This was the worst earthquake to hit the country in 200 years, and aftershocks continued Wednesday.

Cargo planes with food, water, medical supplies, shelter and sniffer dogs began arriving Wednesday in what is considered the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation.

Because the quake knocked out power and communication systems, families like the Larsons were left in limbo, waiting for someone in Haiti to get through with an e-mail or phone call.

"[Renee's] parents got a message [from the U.S. Embassy] that she's OK," David Larson said Wednesday night. But no one knew where she was, or the status of the others.

He got a third-hand report about Jon via a Wartburg student who tracked down a layperson in Florida who had been in Haiti earlier, and who apparently had received an e-mail that morning.

"We're so used to communicating easily," David Larson said.

"It's frustrating when you can't do that." The young people did not answer their cell phones, but he knew communication systems had been hard hit so that was no surprise.

And though it had only been 24 hours since the quake hit, he added, "It seems a lot longer than that."

He watched some televised reports from Haiti. "I keep hoping to catch a glimpse of these guys so I know they're OK," David Larson said Wednesday night. But when the same images were shown over and over, he stopped watching.

He tried many times to get through to the U.S. consulate offices, but with the high volume of calls, that was not successful.

Jonathan and Ben Larson both were studying for master of divinity degrees.

Ben Larson is the son of the Rev. April Ulring Larson and the Rev. Judd W. Larson of Duluth. April Larson is pastor at First Lutheran Church and former bishop of the ELCA La Crosse Area Synod; Judd Larson is a retired ELCA pastor. Ben is the youngest of their four children.

A fourth Wartburg student, Sara Thomson, an intern at Abiding Hope Lutheran Church in Littleton, Colo., was reported safe in Jacmel, Haiti.