PHOENIX >> About 10 hours after the massacre that claimed the lives of his grandchildren, Kenneth Miller drove his ATV through the northern Mexico wilderness in a frantic search for one last missing relative — a 9-year-old girl who had gone in search of help.
Following a path off the dirt roadway where three vehicles had been hit with a barrage of gunfire, Miller and fellow searchers found small footprints in the sand — one foot bare, the other with a shoe on it. They followed the tracks for miles, at times losing the trail on harder rock, then picking it back up again in softer soil.
Then, through the darkness, Miller saw her. McKenzie was alive.
“I ran out and grabbed that little girl and just hugged her,” Miller recalled. “I said, ‘It’s your Uncle Kenny.’ The first thing she said was, ‘We’ve got to go back and get the others.’”
The search ended a day of inconceivable trauma for Miller, who earlier that morning had found the burned remains of his daughter-in-law and four of his grandchildren in their bullet-riddled vehicle. In the northern Mexico community of fundamentalist Mormons, where large families are the norm, it was children — including some less than a year old — who faced the brunt of the carnage.
In the days since, as they undergo hospital treatment here in Arizona, the children have also become the face of the community’s bond and resilience.
Details emerging from the tragedy are revealing how some of the children who survived the Monday morning roadway attack frantically tried to save those who did not. Kendra Lee Miller, a relative who was raised in the Mormon enclave in the Mexican state of Sonora and now lives in the United States, described a harrowing scene, based on firsthand reports from the survivors.
She said that Devin Langford, 13, saw his mother, Dawna, and his brothers Trevor, 11, and Rogan, 2, shot dead. Video provided by the family showed two white SUVs riddled with bullet holes. There were about a dozen in the front windshield of Dawna Langford’s vehicle, and the interior was covered in blood and strewn with foam puzzle pieces used by the children.
Devin managed to survive the massacre with six other siblings, who took refuge in nearby bushes. Devin “covered them with branches to keep them safe while he went for help,” Kendra Lee Miller wrote on Facebook.
From the hiding place, the boy trekked about 14 miles across country to the outpost of La Mora, Sonora, where the families lived, to get help. He arrived shortly before sunset, providing the first reports about survivors and how the deadly attack had unfolded.
The morning began with a three-car caravan journeying along a dirt road that family members in the Mormon communities had traversed for decades. Three mothers drove, with a total of 14 children along for the trip.
But reports began coming in that something had gone wrong. Kenneth Miller and the others drove out to find out what happened. They came first upon a vehicle that had been driven by his daughter-in-law, Rhonita Miller, 30, with four of her children inside. Their remains, he said, were charred to the point of being unrecognizable.
Family members identified the children who died there as Howard, 12; Krystal, 10; and 8-month old twins, Titus and Tiana.
Kendra Lee Miller, who split her time between the northern Mexico community and North Dakota, had three other children who had stayed home with her father-in-law and the rest of the family. Her husband, Howard Miller, has since flown in from North Dakota, but family members said the children hadn’t yet grasped the news of what had happened to the rest of their family.
“It’s all a nightmare,” Kenneth Miller said.
After finding the shell of the burned-out SUV, Kenneth Miller said, the family began worrying about what had happened with the other two vehicles, which had been traveling farther ahead. It had been hours since they left, no one had heard from them, and evening was approaching.
That was when Devin reached La Mora and reported what had happened to the others.
Eventually, members of the community, accompanied by Devin and police, made it out far enough to find the other two SUVs, which were together.
The two women who had been driving them, Dawna Langford and Christina Johnson, were dead, as were two of Dawna’s children.
But six more children were alive, though some of them were injured: A 14-year-old shot in the foot, an 8-year-old shot in the jaw, a 4-year-old shot in the back, a 9-month-old shot in the chest. A 6-year-old was uninjured. And, at the time, 9-year-old McKenzie Langford was missing; she, too, had set out to find help after hours had passed and Devin had not returned.
Then there was Christina’s baby, Faith, just 7 months old, who was still strapped in her car seat. Kenneth Miller said the car seat had two bullet holes in it, and shots had pierced the interior of the car all around her. But the baby was uninjured.
“That child was miraculously protected,” he said.
A video of some of the injured children, recorded after the attack, shows them in a medical facility. A baby girl wrapped in a pink patterned blanket shrieks as a man tries to comfort her. A bandage covers her chest. Another girl sits on a bed, her face drawn into a deep frown, blood covering her jeans, her long brown hair tousled and loose. Her foot is wrapped in bandages.
The staff at a Mexican hospital treated the injured children until a helicopter provided by the Mexican military airlifted the children to the U.S. border; from there, they were transported to a hospital in Tucson, Arizona. Some of the wounded children were expected to be moved today to a hospital in Phoenix for further treatment, according to Aaron Staddon, 44, a relative who lives in Queen Creek, Arizona.