Michelle Horton didn’t bother to wipe away her tears as she watched family members light dozens of candles at a Monday night memorial for Madison Billups, the 9-year-old Janesville girl whose body searchers found Monday morning, days after she was swept away in the Rock River.
Horton stood in a crowd of about 150 people that had gathered for a prayer vigil for Billups at Anglers Park west of the Monterey Bridge. The crowd faced a display of balloons and hearts on a knoll in the park that overlooks the turbid stretch of the river where Billups was carried away Thursday in a strong undertow.
As Madison’s family and dozens of residents readied for a candlelight prayer service for the girl, tears continued to roll down Horton’s cheeks.
“Every teardrop is a prayer to God,” Horton said.
Organizers had raced to set up a prayer service for Madison on Monday afternoon, plans taking root in the early moments after police had told family a volunteer kayak searcher had discovered Madison’s body south of the Bellrichard Bridge in Janesville.
By Monday night, family of the Janesville girl had decorated part of Anglers Park and the riverfront with helium balloons and photos of the young girl.
Residents and family stood at the rain-sodden, muddy riverfront at Anglers Park. They sang “Amazing Grace” together and then let dozens of balloons into the air at 7:16 p.m.—right around the same time Billups was reported to have slipped away in the river Thursday night.
The balloons raced west above the river, downstream and beyond as the family gave thanks to searchers and volunteers who’ve helped pull dozens of Madison’s family members through a harrowing, dayslong vigil at the park where the girl went missing.
Family still in shock and with raw emotions talked about the girl they’re missing now, even though her body finally has been found.
Horton said she knows what Madison Billups, the girl whom she considers her niece, would have told the crowd.
“She always told people, ‘Why get mad? There’s nothing you can do about it. Mad doesn’t help,’” Horton said. “That’s the way she was. Very smart for her age, very wise for her age, curious. She asked a lot of questions that were sometimes too hard for you to answer. She was a good girl.”
Ashley Ranum, a local teacher and one resident who helped the family organize Monday’s vigil, said she and dozens of others in a local Facebook mom’s group had rallied around the family and searchers over the weekend.
She said moms from all over the area pitched in to donate food, water and even hotel rooms to help the family during the four day search.
“These local moms, it was like, ‘Whatever you need right now, here it is. Boom.’ We all have children of our own,” Ranum said.
Among the dozens at the vigil was the man family said discovered Madison’s body Monday morning. The volunteer kayaker, who some in the crowd identified as “Jeremy,” stood with his head bowed while family thanked him.
The kayaker declined an interview Monday night, and declined to give his full name.
Frank Billups, a relative of Madison Billups, lauded the kayaker.
“He made it happen. To me, this guy is my hero,” Billups said.
Then he looked around.
“But there’s no one hero,” he said. “Everybody who’s been out here all this time is a hero.”