Douglas C. Pizac, File, Associated Press
FILE - In this July 17, 2002 file photo, a marker describes the Mountain Meadows burial site which is in the valley, at rear, in Mountain Meadows, Utah. This southern Utah site where Mormons massacred members of a 19th Century Arkansas wagon train has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Interior Department.

ENTERPRISE, UTAH — On a day when people throughout the United States were remembering the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, some 400 people gathered on a windy morning on a remote plot of ground in southern Utah to remember another tragic event on Sept. 11, 1857.

"Today we recognize the importance of this site with its designation as a National Historic Landmark," wrote U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in a letter that was read during the Sunday morning gathering at the site of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Salazar was not present at the ceremony during which two plaques were unveiled noting the site's official designation as a National Historic Landmark because he was in Shanksville, Pa., helping to dedicate the Flight 93 Memorial there. But his written comments drew parallels between the two tragedies that occurred on Sept. 11, 144 years apart.

As is the case at Shanksville and Ground Zero in New York City, Sec. Salazar wrote, "the Mountain Meadows Massacre site is a sobering place — a place where the consequences of a senseless act are still felt, but where the changes that have occurred in its aftermath offer hope."

The 760-acre site, which is located in a mountain valley about 35 miles southwest of Cedar City, is where approximately 120 emigrants — mostly from Arkansas, bound for California — were killed by a group of armed Mormon militiamen "unjustifiably and treacherously," according to Elder Marlin K. Jensen, LDS Church historian and recorder and a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy.

Although the massacre was perpetrated by "members of the church I represent," those perpetrators deviated "so widely from the Christian principles of our religion," Elder Jensen said, who added that his interactions with descendants and family members of the victims has led him to wonder "what might have been had they been permitted to live and reach their California destination."

"This very human element of the massacre story and all of the unmet expectations and suffering it encompasses tugs at my heart strings most of all," he continued. "It compels me to say today just how sorry I am for what happened here so long ago, a feeling shared by all the leaders of our church."

Richard Turley, assistant church historian noted that "we cannot change what happened, but we can remember and honor those who were killed there."

During the past several years descendents of the Arkansas emigrants — primarily functioning through three organizations, the Mountain Meadows Association, the Mountain Meadows Massacre Descendants and the Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation — have been working closely with the LDS Church (which, along with the U.S. Forest Service, owns and maintains the land) in preserving the ground that serves as the final resting place for the massacre victims and providing appropriate markers, plaques and monuments in observance of the event. Turley said that has been especially true during the process of securing National Historic Landmark designation.

"People from across the country wrote letters and made phone calls expressing their support of landmark designation," Turley said. "To all who did so, we express our deepest appreciation."

The Sunday events at the Mountain Meadows site were actually part of the second day of activities for victim descendants, who met Saturday to retrace the steps of their pioneer forbears from the spot of their encampment to the place where they were actually executed. A new monument has been placed at that spot as well.

During the Sunday ceremony, three relatives of Mountain Meadows victims — Phil Bolinger, Terry Fancher and Patty Norris — stood at the microphone and took turns reading the names of the massacre victims, as well as the 17 surviving children, similar to the reading of 9/11 victim names that took place at Shanksville, Ground Zero and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Sunday morning.

Like those sites, Sec. Salazar noted in his letter, "the Mountain Meadows Massacre site not only bears witness to the terrible events of Sept. 11, 1857, but to the power of reconciliation."