"It's real!" Edward Smart exclaimed as he met the media Thursday, a day after being reunited with his daughter. It was as if he too could hardly believe the news that seemed too astonishing to be true: Nine months after being abducted from her Salt Lake City bedroom, Elizabeth Smart, now 15, was home.
Experts say prospects dim with each day a kidnapped child is gone, and 280 had passed since a younger sister, feigning sleep, saw a man steal Elizabeth away. Elizabeth was 14 then, the same age as the fictional Susie Salmon in last year's lyrical bestseller "The Lovely Bones." Susie also went missing, but readers knew what happened to her even if her family didn't: The murdered teenager narrated her story from heaven.
Alice Sebold's novel tapped a national nerve. It doesn't matter that most child kidnappings involve family members battling over custody. The heart-rending exceptions make too indelible an impression.
Acting on a tip, police found Elizabeth, wearing a wig and a veil, in a Salt Lake City suburb with a drifter who had once done work for her family. He and his wife are being held on suspicion of aggravated kidnapping while the police try to answer the many questions in the stranger-than-fiction mystery.
But this much is known: Friends and neighbors searched nearby canyons and plastered the West with fliers. The drifter's sister volunteered his real name and a photo. Strangers kept their eyes peeled until some spotted him. A community came together to bring Elizabeth home, and a country that could use some good news celebrates.