LAKE OZARK, Mo. — Sisters Heather Gilion and Holly Snell describe the loss of their husbands — James Brill and Scott Nesbitt — on Aug. 1, 2000, like it had just happened.
The two women recounted their story at the Missouri Baptist Foundation Annual Conference Sept. 16 at the Lodge of the Four Seasons in Lake Ozark, Mo., and they described God’s care and faithfulness in their lives for the 14 years since.
They wrote a book about their experiences in 2010 — “Dancing on My Ashes” — and they signed it for conference attendees following their presentation.
Back in 2000, Scott and Holly had opened a Christian camp in Vermont just a month earlier as a means to reach out to young people. James and Heather had made a trip to Vermont to assist them as camp counselors.
On Aug. 1, the two men left to find a daylong canoe trail safe enough for teen campers. They didn’t return for dinner as they had planned and an all-out search began by the next morning into the nearby woods and along the streams.
Later on Aug. 2, word came that the bodies of the two men had been found. Scott had a gash on his head, prompting authorities to conclude that he had slipped on wet rocks at river’s edge, struck his head and that James had died trying to rescue him.
Both were found floating in the river in life jackets.
“I ran one direction and Heather ran in another,” Holly said, describing their immediate reactions.
“I was on my knees in the wet grass; I don’t know how long,” she said. “Something supernatural happened in my life; I started proclaiming who he is. I knew God is good; he’s proven it over and over again.”
Heather acknowledged she had run in the opposite direction, both literally and spiritually. She recalled the loss of their Baptist pastor father unexpectedly just eight months earlier.
When that happened, “it rocked my faith,” she admitted. Then came the tragic deaths of her husband and brother-in-law.
“I became so bitter so quickly,” she said. “It affected me in every area of my life. I was so mad at God.
“Holly was kneeling in the grass worshiping him, and I was ready to have it out with him,” she said. “I was ready to be done with him. I looked up, and I knew he was waiting for me,” she recalled. “I said, ‘No, you can’t comfort me.’”
Here were two men dedicated to God and trying to serve him, she thought. “I was so angry and so hurt.”
Still, on that hillside, she could feel his attention on her and realized that God loved her.
That was her crossroads moment,” she said.
“I had to humble myself and say, ‘God, I don’t understand; I may never understand.”
But she understood “that he loved me and that he desperately wanted me to know that.”
“I prayed, ‘Lord, I need you. And he has been more than enough,” she said. Holly acknowledged God cares for his children in every circumstance. “He sees us in our brokenness and in our victories,” she said.
Both of the women have since remarried.
Holly, the mother of 2-year-old Emma when her husband Scott died, said God brought someone into her life and her daughter’s sooner that she had anticipated.
She met Aaron Snell, and less than a year-and-a-half after the fatal accident, she became Heather Snell. They have had two children together, son Malachi and daughter Ava.
Today, Heather Brill is married to Dallas Gilion. She had known him for a couple of years before she realized he had an interest in her.
In late 2004, Jim Brill, her first father-in-law, walked down the aisle and presented her to her new husband. They have two sons, Noah and Zechariah.
Today, Aaron and Holly are planting a church in the Dallas suburb of McKinney, Texas. Dallas and Heather are part of a team that planted LifePoint Church in Ozark, Mo. Dallas serves as an elder.
The release of their book about four years ago has opened up other ministry opportunities for the two women to share their story. They help lead worship at retreats and conferences, and they often are accompanied by their husbands. Aaron plays the piano, and Dallas is a guitarist.
The women believe they are following God’s will for their lives as they tell their story not only through “Dancing on My Ashes” and speaking engagements but via social media such as Facebook.