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Elizabeth heard calls of canyon searchers

Secreted away by her captors in Dry Canyon, Elizabeth Smart was within shouting distance of those searching to bring her safely home.

"She heard a searcher call her name," her uncle Tom Smart said late Wednesday night. "She heard the searcher's voice."

Smart said Elizabeth is believed to have been about three and one-half miles up Dry Canyon, above the University of Utah, for several days following her June 5 abduction from her Federal Heights home. The voice she heard may even have been that of a family member, he said.

Why didn't she call back?

"Well, she was captive," Tom Smart said. "She may have."

Defying all the odds, Elizabeth, 15, was found about 1 p.m. Wednesday in Sandy after motorists spotted her walking along State Street with a man and a woman. All three were taken into custody by police, who later determined the girl was Elizabeth.

When he saw her for the first time Wednesday night, Tom Smart said he hugged his niece and told her he loved her.

She responded: "I haven't been on a horse for nine months." It's a passion the two shared, often riding together.

"She's obviously in a state of shock, as we all are," Tom Smart said. "Right now we're just giving her some space."

Then Tom Smart said he turned to Elizabeth's younger sister, Mary Katherine, the sole eyewitness to the kidnapping.

"You're my little hero," he told her, referring to Mary Katherine's persistent belief that it was indeed Brian David Mitchell who took her sister.

Mitchell was arrested and booked into the Salt Lake County Jail for investigation of aggravated kidnapping. Mitchell's companion, Wanda Barzee, was arrested at the same time and booked on the same charge.

Elizabeth was examined by doctors after meeting with police Wednesday afternoon and was returned home to her family just after 8 p.m.

As the news of Elizabeth's recovery began to spread Wednesday afternoon, the tears began to flow.

In her Federal Heights neighborhood. At her school. At the LDS meetinghouse where she attended church each Sunday.

Then, came the balloons. Cheery and powder blue — Elizabeth's favorite color — they popped up like flowers in spring, lending a carnival atmosphere to the neighborhood where people have prayed and worried and wondered for months if the blond-haired, blue-eyed teenager would ever come home.

Outside the Federal Heights LDS meetinghouse, neighbors gathered to share the family's joy. Across the pillars in front of the church stretched a paper sign: "Welcome home Liz!"

Church members cried and hugged each other while exclaiming, "It's a great day," and "Isn't it unbelievable?"

"I don't think it's really sunk in yet," one woman said, wiping tears from her cheek.

Hours earlier as the final bell rang at Bryant Intermediate School, where Elizabeth attended school, her classmates and teachers rejoiced in the news.

"Daily, I have prayed that they find her. I'm just glad that they have," Bryant Intermediate School principal Frances Battle said.

"It's such a shock. Everyone's surprised. The staff came down and was equally excited and astounded they found her alive," Battle said. "I'm just happy and relieved that she's found, and we will assist in any way that we can as a school."

Alicen Finlinson, 14, was one of the first to hear of Elizabeth's safe return. "My mom called me on my phone," said Alicen, a neighbor whose brother worked for Elizabeth's father, Ed. "I was about to cry."

She, other students and teachers crowded around a television. One teacher told them to wear baby-blue clothes to school Thursday to celebrate; another purchased blue streamers to decorate the school's fence.

"I started crying and I turned on the news and it's so unreal," said Sara Skjonsberg, a school friend since kindergarten. "I am just so glad she's alive and I love her and I'm incredibly glad that she's home."

The mood at the school was very different from the day Elizabeth was taken from her Federal Heights bedroom only days before the end of the 2001-02 school year. "The day she got abducted, everybody at school was crying," said Cami Clayton, 13.

Cami joined her classmates to repair a message that had been spelled out in blue ribbons along the school's chain link fence many months ago. Now it will read, "We love you Liz," a sentiment Cami said was "just for her to know we still love her and think about her."

Farmington "harp mom" Debbie Bernhisel shouted a joyous "Hello!" when answering the phone Wednesday, 90 minutes after she and her daughter Kephren, 12, heard the news. Then it was: "Oh my gosh! It's a wonderful day. It's just unbelievable!"

The first thing Bernhisel did after catching the KSL-TV report was call other harp moms. "I couldn't sit down. I had to keep moving," she said. Kephren and Elizabeth played the harp together.

Then, calming down just slightly, she said, "Ed and Lois have been such an example to all of us. We just saw Mary Katherine . . . if it were me, I'd be under the bed. But Lois, she kept it up for her children."

Bernhisel and her daughter "just keep looking at each other" as the reports unfolded into the evening. "Prayers are answered," she said. "We still have the blue ribbon on our harp."

"I'm so grateful that her parents can touch her and hold her," Bernhisel said, adding that difficult times are ahead as the Smarts recover from their nine-month ordeal. "But if any family can get through it, it's them."

Frank Gustin, the Smarts' next-door neighbor, said the June 5 kidnapping devastated the neighborhood.

"It has been a dark nine months. Every day you wake up and think about the situation. You look at their place and look at the yard and wonder how something this tragic could happen here," said Gustin, who heard about Elizabeth's return while at work. "This thing is so stunning that you have to reflect on it a little bit."