Monday, June 11, 2001

Camden honors drowning victims

Residents gather to remember four

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jim Wood (center), grandfather of the drowned girls, is comforted during a service Sunday.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
        CAMDEN, Ohio — They arrived in silence and left in tears. But what happened during Sunday morning services at Higher Heights Church of God spoke to the unity of its members, and to the legacy of two girls who made an indelible impression long before they made tragic headlines.

        The drowning deaths last week of the Wood sisters, 11-year-old Tara and 9-year- old Josey, in a nearby quarry devastated this small Preble County town of rolling hills about 25 miles west of Dayton.

        It was a heartache compounded by the deaths of the two men who jumped in to save them: the girls' father, Jim “Lee” Wood, 42, and Russell Hileman, 37. All were from the Camden area.

        Mr. Wood's body was recovered Saturday from the quarry reservoir.

        On Sunday morning, from the front porches of modest white clapboard homes, American flags waved at half-staff.

        Standing at the altar with a microphone in his shaking hand, Jim Wood, the grandfather who was raising the girls, was a torn fabric of belief and disbelief.

        “I just can't believe the support we've gotten,” he told his fellow church members, some of whom he's known for 35 years. “We just thank God for y'all.”

        The service led by Pastor Marvin Hocker didn't end in the usual way. The man whose voice wavered throughout his sermon announced that anyone who wanted to stick around was welcome to do so.

        All got up. Virtually none left.

        “They were precious,” the girls' aunt, Deborah Pitts of New Paris said as church members lined up to console Mr. Wood, his wife, Mary, and their extended family.

        The girls were swept into the strong current of the gravel pit off U.S. 127 in which they were fishing on Wednesday. Many children who can't swim well drown when they panic. That wasn't Tara and Josey.

        “Swim, those girls would swim until it was dark,” Ms. Pitts said.

        Gathering her thoughts, what emerged was a story not of death, but of life.

        “They filled the house,” their aunt said. “Now it's empty.”

        The girls excelled at spelling, enjoyed playing T-ball when they were younger. Josey was the chatterbox of the two, Tara more reserved.

        The girls were among 36 stu dents at the church school, but were the only two who Pastor Hocker recalls routinely coming up to hug him, saying, “We love you, pastor.”

        “The only two,” the pastor said in a quiet moment, just minutes before the service. “Every day.”

        Then he walked out into the hushed silence and announced, “I feel very insufficient for the task. I know I stand before a hurting congregation. But I know there's a power far greater.”

        Memorial services official and unofficial continued Sunday for the four victims. More are planned today.

        “I think in a small town you find more love,” church member Brenda Brittain said in a low voice. “More concern.”

        “We can empathize,” said Gary Super, a member of nearby First Southern Baptist Church who didn't know the victims, “but we've never had anything like this happen. What else can you do?”


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