Divided Polygamist Towns Come Together to Grieve After Flash Flood Tragedy in Utah: 'It's Heartbreaking to Lose so Many People,' Says Lt. Gov. Cox

"What do you say to people who just lost their families? "What do you say when three women and 10 children are suddenly swept away?" Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer J. Cox tells PEOPLE

Photo: George Frey/Getty

In what is believed to be the deadliest weather event in Utah history, 12 people from the polygamist community of Hildale are now confirmed dead after flash floods Monday night, while another four people from California and Nevada were swept away and killed in Zion National Park on the same day while hiking.

Three adults are still missing in Zion and one child is still missing in Hildale after record rainfall drenched southern Utah for two days. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a storm-related event like this one,” Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer J. Cox tells PEOPLE from southern Utah, where was surveying the damage and visiting with residents on Monday and Tuesday.

“To see the magnitude and ferocity of this flood was truly breathtaking,” he says. “What do you say to people who just lost their families? What do you say when three women and 10 children are suddenly swept away? It’s devastating. But to see people working together here to recover the victims and help each other has restored my faith in humanity.”

In Hildale, three women, all sisters – Josephine and Naomi Jessop and Della Johnson – were confirmed dead by authorities, along with nine children who have not yet been identified.

Hildale and the neighboring community of Colorado City, Arizona, are home to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a polygamist sect led by Warren Jeffs, who was convicted of child sexual assault in 2011 and is now serving a life sentence in Texas.

Willie Jessop, 47, a former FLDS spokesman who left the church after Jeffs’ assaults on “child brides” came to light, says that the women and their children were swept away Monday evening over a 25-foot cliff after they stopped their vehicles to watch the floodwaters rise.

“These women were all my cousins,” he tells PEOPLE. “They were coming down from Maxwell Park up the canyon and were watching the flood cross the road, when another wall of water hit them from behind and washed them into Short Creek. We recovered their bodies from as far as six miles out. The magnitude of the loss of life in our little community has been very heavy. We’re all in shock.”

Jessop says that the towns of Hildale and Colorado City have been divided since Jeffs’ conviction, with most residents still supporting the self-proclaimed prophet. But the flash flood tragedy has united everyone, he says, at least for now.

“This has pushed the community together like nothing in recent years – it’s forced us to come together and help each other,” he tells PEOPLE. “It also amplifies our challenges, but for now, we’re all grieving together and showing our concern. We’re working together for the common good of finding and remembering those who were lost.”

With one unidentified child still missing, the search effort is now focused on recovering his or her body, says Lt. Gov. Cox.

“I met a young boy yesterday who survived – he couldn’t have been older than 9 or 10,” Cox tells PEOPLE. “He told me that his ability to get out of the vehicle was miraculous. He somehow was able to get out the window, climb on top of the vehicle and jump to safety. This boy lost his mother. We just sat and hugged each other and cried. I told him that he must have a very special purpose in life.”

In Zion National Park, the same storm cell sent a flash flood roaring through Keyhole Canyon, where four men and three women from California and Nevada were swept away. They’d picked up permits to hike the technically difficult canyon, despite being warned that flash flooding was likely.

“It’s heartbreaking to lose so many people like this in a single day,” says Cox. “Twenty fatalities from one storm. This story is heartbreaking, but it’s also heartwarming. So many people are coming together now to show their love and support.”

In Hildale, where families are now making funeral arrangements, “We’ll somehow get through this,” Jessop tells PEOPLE. “There hasn’t been a public memorial service here since Warren Jeffs’ conviction in 2011. Everything has always been done privately since. I don’t know if that will change, but I hope so. This has affected every single person here. We’ll be feeling the shock of this tragedy for a long, long time.”

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