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Photo courtesy of KSL-TV
Edwin Montell Seely

FAIRVIEW, Sanpete County — Edwin Montell Seely built his first handcart when he was 12 years old.

Decades later he walked 46 days across the U.S. to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Mormon pioneers' trek from Omaha, Neb., to Utah.

Tuesday, while re-enacting the call to settle Castle Valley by climbing Fairview Canyon, Seely and another participant, 13-year-old Hannah Wagstaff, were hit by a truck and killed.

"All the activities he did, (writing) histories, pageants, all the family reunions, was all to honor our forefathers," said his son, Mark Seely. "Now we experience a part of the hardship they may have experienced. Now we're catching a glimpse of what it may have felt like when they ... lost loved ones on the trail."

The group had gathered in Fairview for what was to be a five-day pioneer re-enactment with nightly firesides that culminated at the Seely family farm in Orangeville/Castle Dale in Emery County.

The group of 12 — a van, then a horse-drawn period wagon and a handcart — had only been on Highway 31 for a few minutes Tuesday when tragedy struck about 8 a.m.

The driver of a Chevy truck told police the early morning sun was blinding and he never saw the pioneer crew climbing the winding canyon road ahead of him.

He crashed into the handcart first, splintering it and killing Wagstaff, who had been behind pushing.

The truck then veered off to the side and struck Seely, who had been standing in the narrow, two-lane road to warn the truck to slow down, said Utah Highway Patrol trooper Cameron Roden.

The driver, from Old Town, Idaho, has not been charged, nor the re-enactment group cited for being in the road, but the case is being investigated and will be sent to the Sanpete County Attorney's Office for review, Roden said.

Four others were injured — Mark Seely's daughter Hannah, 9, was hospitalized in Sanpete Valley Hospital with a broken collar bone, while his son, Jonathan, 7, was flown to Primary Children's Medical Center with minor hip fractures and bruises.

Ben Carter, a family friend from Salt Lake City, was standing by the handcart when it was hit.

"The truck smashed the handcart to pieces," he said, shaking his head. A wooden wheel from the 1856-style handcart hit his kneecap. He knows he's lucky it wasn't worse.

Both families plan to bury their loved ones in simple pine boxes, Mark Seely said, indicative of their appreciation of the simple, back-to-basics way of life.

Wagstaff was a musician and had played a violin solo and duet with her younger sister around a campfire the night before.

Her parents are artists Clay and Rebecca Wagstaff, of Tropic, Garfield County, who specialize in landscape and portrait work, respectively, according to the Wagstaffs' Web site.

A third family participating was not injured. The families were not related, but all shared a special love of pioneer history and honoring their posterity, said Mark Seely, who was driving the van at the time of the accident.

"(We like) to do pioneer-related activities to think about our forefathers and honor them," he said.

Along with preserving old buildings, planning pioneer treks and writing family and county histories, Montell Seely also wrote the Castle Valley Pageant, which has been going for nearly 30 years on some of his donated land, his family said.

The show is one of the longest-running LDS pioneer pageants in Utah, depicting the settling of the Castle Valley by pioneers sent to the region by Brigham Young.

"I wanted to help people develop an increased love for their pioneer ancestors and an increased love for the land," Montell Seely told the Deseret News in 1991.

Seely's entire life was about service, his family said. He always picked up hitchhikers, and family members said they remember numerous evenings where strangers who needed help were allowed to stay the night.

"He always watched out for the underdog," Mark Seely said. "He was considerate and thoughtful."

Mani Grewal knows the truth of that statement. Twenty years ago, he was the underdog.

The native of India and his wife, Lippa, fled to the United States on a 45-day student pass to escape war in Liberia. While traveling by train, they met Montell and Mark Seely as they boarded the train in Helper.

At the end of the 14-hour trip to their destinations of Chicago, Seely pulled a check-deposit slip from his wallet, which contained his name and address, then he drew a map of Castle Dale on the back.

"Anytime you need help in life, call me," Grewal said, remembering the decades-old conversation.

After living in Canada for seven years, Grewal made the call, saying they wanted to build a life in America.

The Grewal family came to visit and ended up living in the Seely home for several months while Grewal looked for work. He eventually got a job with the United States Chamber of Commerce, then traded that in for entrepreneurial endeavors. He now owns a gas station and a motel in central Utah and is a financial success story.

"Very proudly I will tell everyone I'm from Castle Dale," Grewal said, then his eyes got misty. "Knowing Montell has been a blessing in our life."

He calls Montell and Kathryn Seely "mom and dad" now, and said after their last conversation Monday, their hugs were three to four times longer than normal as if they knew it was the last time they would see each other.

Despite Tuesday's tragedy, this trek isn't out of the question, said daughter LeAnne Seely, who lives in Castle Dale.

"No, I wouldn't be surprised if our family did this again," she said. "We'll start at the top of the mountain, the unpaved road. We only meant to be (on the road) up to the summit. I would love to do it. I was looking forward to the things we would learn. I'd like the grandkids to experience that, and to honor (Seely) in the future."

E-mail: sisraelsen@desnews.com