Polygamous towns hold memorial for victims of deadly floods

HILDALE, Utah -- One by one, the names of the dead were read aloud.

Then, they walked to a bridge over the silt-covered creek bed and held candles -- one for each of the 21 victims of a pair of floods that ravaged southern Utah. Others followed close behind with their own candles to remember them.

About 200 people gathered in a park here Wednesday night to remember the victims of last year's catastrophic floods in Short Creek (the common name for the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.) and nearby Zion National Park. In prayer and music, they paid tribute -- but also spoke of how the tragedy brought this divided community together.

A child kneels by candles lit to honor the victims of the devastating flooding in Hildale. (Image by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

A child kneels by candles lit to honor the victims of the devastating flooding in Hildale. (Image by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

"The flood was a turning point. FLDS, we didn't invite anyone from the outside world into this town. When the flood happened, thousands and thousands came to the rescue," said Terrill Musser. "A lot of people experienced for the first time, outside people, and they realize they're just like us. They're good people."

Musser was among a group of ex-members of the Fundamentalist LDS Church who organized the memorial service. The town governments did not sponsor it and FOX 13 was told most active FLDS members chose to stay away. Still, a few were spotted nearby watching silently.

The FLDS Church, led by imprisoned polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, is the dominant faith in the communities. In recent years, increasing numbers of people have been kicked out and separated from their families, told to "repent from afar." But some have chosen to return and rebuild their lives here.

An image provided to FOX 13 from the flooding in Hildale that killed 14.

An image provided to FOX 13 from the flooding in Hildale in 2015 that killed 14.

 

Fourteen people in the Hildale and Colorado City-area were killed in the flash flooding after vehicles were swept away on Sept. 14, 2015. Seven more were killed the next day at Zion National Park in another round of storms. Matthew Lax, a friend of that group of hikers caught in a slot canyon storm, attended Wednesday night's services.

"I don't know if it gives closure. It's just a way so we don't forget them," he told FOX 13. "We always want to keep remembering them forever."

The body of 6-year-old Tyson Black has never been recovered, but Musser told the crowd that searchers still return from time to time to keep looking for him. At the memorial service, state workers, members of the Utah National Guard and volunteers who helped search and rebuild the community were praised for their efforts.

 

Governor Gary Herbert, who is in Canada on a trade mission, sent a letter that was read at the memorial service honoring the victims and praising the community for coming together.

Ex-members of the FLDS Church said after the tragedy, they found their families speaking to them again and it brought them closer. Leona Bateman, a former member, said she hopes those inside and outside the FLDS Church can foster stronger relationships.

 

"For the first time on that night, the FLDS and the ex-FLDS became friends," she said.