HILDALE, Utah (AP) — A survivor so young he stepped on a stool to reach a podium microphone, remembered his heart "whacking like a sledgehammer" in the moments before a flash flood swept he and his family away nearly two weeks ago.
Joseph Jessop Jr. spoke Saturday during a rare public memorial service hosted by two often-secretive polygamous towns on the Utah-Arizona border that typically shun outsiders and loathe government interference.
Funerals have previously been handled discreetly, with no invitations extended to outsiders, including family of the deceased, if they aren't members of this sect of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Nine of 12 bodies recovered have already been buried in a town cemetery with modest markers.
But Saturday's memorial was open to anyone and held in the same lush park surrounded by rich red rock canyon walls where sisters Josephine Jessop, Naomi Jessop and Della Black are thought to have been on Sept. 14 with their 13 children before driving down the canyon during a flash-flood alert.
A display affixed to a backstop at the park's baseball field told their story, with a writerly touch and images captured on cellphones of the women moments before, describing the red-brown water, "tumbling its load and writhing like a massive serpent."
The neighboring towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, hosted the afternoon memorial service at the top of a canyon road in Maxwell Park where a few hundred people gathered, including Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, representatives from the state's attorney general office and officials from both Washington and Mohave counties.
"Today, the people of Utah mourn with you," Herbert said, citing passages from the Book of Mormon, adding that circumstances like these can draw people out, allowing them to help when they may have otherwise hesitated to do so.
"Good things can come out of difficult situations," he said.
Mohave County Supervisor Gary L. Watson said before the service that it could be a turning point, "one of those opportunities for everybody to realize that everyone matters," he said.
Husband and father Joseph N. Jessop Sr. lost children as young as four or five years old that day: Rebekah, Melissa, Naomi, Ruth, Valient, Velvet and "Sweet" Caress.
A heartbroken Sheldon Black Jr. remembered his wife Della, "she did everything for me. She knew exactly what I needed," his "little angel," LaRue Black who would throw her arms around his neck and squeeze him, and his "sweet precious angel," Melanie Black.
Saturday, he recalled his six-year-old son Tyson Lucas Black, with his "beautiful, heavenly smile," wanting to join him to do electrical work, climbing the ladder, using the drill, not wanting to goof off. Tyson is presumed dead but remains missing nearly two weeks following the flood. On Saturday, teams of specially-trained dogs still searched for him.
Three young boys, including Joseph Jessop Jr. and two sons of Sheldon Black Jr., survived.
The service acknowledged several others who died in the same deadly storms including seven hikers in Zion National Park and a man from nearby Hurricane, Utah.
Black Jr. said he was overwhelmed with everything everyone had done to help. Hundreds of volunteers from various government agencies and independent groups descended on the town to search a stretch of several miles for any sign of the women and children.
"I love you," he said, in a soft voice.
There was no mention of religious persecution this time. Nearly two weeks prior, the two grieving husbands and fathers read from statements during a press conference that offered profuse thanks for the support offered them during the tragedy but also called for the end to what they called "religious genocide" and asked that they be allowed to practice their religion in peace.
The majority of the 7,700 people living in the towns, including the women and children killed in the flash flooding, are believed to be members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS, a secretive sect led by the now-imprisoned Warren Jeffs. Both councils and mayors of Hildale and Colorado City are also appointed by the church.
Hildale mayor Philip Barlow called Saturday's event historic.
"Little do you know what tomorrow will bring," he said.
A religious rift in the town has divided families, with those who remain in the sect at odds with former FLDS members who were cast out of the church or left on their own.
The search and rescue effort following the flood represented the first time in years that many had exchanged words, let alone worked side-by-side. Ex-members of the sect or those who don't follow Jeffs' church have remained skeptical that the tragedy may unify the town, but the memorial gave them reason for cautious optimism.
Gratitude, thanks and love for government officials and volunteers were mentioned by all who spoke Saturday.
"It's good to see you all," the young Jessop Jr. said to the hundreds gathered, at the outset and end of his brief remarks, perhaps not realizing his simple and genuine greeting illustrated something larger. Long split families and neighbors hadn't seen each other in quite a while, until now.
Even Don Barlow, 83, the first mayor of Colorado City, Arizona, and among the first exiled from the community by Jeffs spent time after the service mingling with people he hadn't seen in some time, even learning he and Utah's Gov. Gary Herbert are cousins.
"It can't do anything but help," he said. "It's good. It's really good. The good Lord has a hand in all things."
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