TAMPA — Elizabeth Smart stood poised in a green dress, her hands resting atop a lectern as she told more than 400 people about the night a decade ago when she awoke to a man she didn't know hovering over her bed.
"I have a knife at your neck," she recalled him saying. "Don't make a sound."
She remembered his grip on her arm as he tugged her out of bed. She remembered being led out of her house, through her back yard, to the edge of a nearby street, where a car marked "police" passed by, an officer apparently unaware of the terror unfolding in the darkness.
She remembered the man's threats — that he would kill her and her family if she didn't cooperate — and how his words made her realize, for the first time, what it meant to be scared.
And on Monday, Elizabeth Smart told the crowd gathered at the Renaissance Hotel in Tampa what it means to survive.
"I saw the worst of humanity," Smart said. "But I also saw the best of humanity."
Smart, now 26, was the featured speaker at the Star Event, a fundraiser for the Sisterhood women's group of Congregation Schaarai Zedek.
She was 14 that night in June 2002, when Brian David Mitchell slipped inside her family's home in Salt Lake City and abducted her. Before a quiet, attentive audience, Smart detailed her harrowing ordeal, the nine months she spent in captivity, enduring physical and sexual abuse from Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee, and her subsequent rescue.
Mitchell and Barzee were later convicted on federal kidnapping charges and sentenced to life in prison and 15 years, respectively.
In the years since her ordeal, Smart has become a renowned public figure and an outspoken advocate for missing children and victims of violence and abuse. It is a cause she speaks of with hurried passion, rattling off alarming statistics, like that one in four girls and one in six boys will be victims of sexual abuse before age 18.
They were things that even she had a hard time believing, she said, until she started traveling the country and sharing her story. At every speech she gives, at every venue she visits, people confide in her that they, too, have been victimized.
"Everybody has problems in life. And it's always good to hear a little bit of hope," Smart said. "The more I do this, the more I realize that this is an opportunity for me to reach out to survivors and have them realize that you can move on and be happy."
Proceeds from Monday's event supported the Sisterhood's various charitable causes. Smart also signed copies of her new book, My Story, a memoir that recounts the kidnapping and how it shaped her life.
For her, though, the event held a dual purpose: to spread a message of hope and resilience, and to give thanks.
She thanks the people who searched for her when she was missing, those who prayed for her safe return, those who continue to pray and wish her well every day. Being thankful, she says, is what has helped her to overcome the nine months of horror that befell her a decade ago, to remember that she is loved.
"I have a lot of thank-yous to give," she said.