Liberty Park — site of a somber candlelight vigil nine months ago for a missing Elizabeth Smart — hosted a festive welcome-home party Friday night for the 15-year-old.

Hundreds of people crowded into the south end of the park to see Lois Smart, Elizabeth's mother, make her first public appearance since her daughter's abduction saga came to an incredible end Wednesday in Sandy.

"I am the luckiest mother in the world. I am so happy and so thrilled," Lois Smart shouted from a podium to a jubilant crowd gathered for the city-sponsored party.

A large poster adorned the front of the podium, with a recent photo of Elizabeth holding her youngest brother William and bearing a handwritten message that read: "I'm the luckiest girl in the world! Thank you for your love and prayers. It's a wish come true!! I'm HOME! I love you all, Elizabeth Smart."

Blue and yellow balloons adorned the stage, and food booths and media tents formed a circle in which people danced, cheered, hugged and at times shed tears of joy for Elizabeth's safe return.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," Lois Smart told the crowd. "Elizabeth is doing well. She's beautiful and she's happy to be home."

Elizabeth spent the night at home while her parents and other relatives gathered at Liberty Park for Friday's celebration.

"The past few days I've been told that I've had a face lift," Elizabeth's father, Ed Smart, said with an ear-to-ear grin on his face. "This smile is pretty permanent."

Besides thanking police, the media and public for their support and prayers in finding his daughter, Ed Smart used his time at the podium to again challenge Congress to pass a national Amber Alert bill.

"I don't take this lightly. I'm calling on the leadership to bring this to the floor, and it if doesn't come soon, you're going to hear from everyone in the nation," he said, eliciting a chorus of cheers.

Kathy Haggerty and Annie Bowen made the 83-mile drive from Evanston, Wyo., Friday afternoon and staked out a spot close to the stage, holding up a sign that read, "Wyoming welcomes you home Elizabeth."

"I feel like they've been a part of our family for the last nine months," Haggerty said of the Smarts.

"I brought my 7-year-old grandson because I want to teach my grandkids that there is good and bad," Carolyn Spriggs said. "I want them to be cautious and not afraid. It is an answer to a lot of prayers here."

Her grandson Hayden Spriggs nodded emphatically when she asked if they always knew they'd find Elizabeth.

Some in the crowd wore the same buttons that announced Elizabeth's disappearance but now with a sticker over the top that said "found."

Another speaker was John Walsh, host of the TV program "America's Most Wanted," who worked closely with the Smart family to find Elizabeth. He praised the Smart family, the community and the witnesses who called police after spotting Brian David Mitchell, Wanda Barzee and Elizabeth walking down State Street in Sandy.

Walsh called Elizabeth's sister Mary Katherine, the lone witness to the abduction, the "hero" of the story for remembering Mitchell as the man who may have been in the room the morning of June 5, when Elizabeth was taken.

"That's what started the ball rolling, that little 9-year-old girl," said Walsh, a crime-fighting activist since his own son, Adam, was kidnapped and murdered in 1981.

Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson also addressed the crowd and praised Salt Lake City Police Chief Rick Dinse and his department for their "commitment to locating Elizabeth."

The compliments came just a day after increasing speculation over Anderson's rumored dissatisfaction with how police handled the case. Anderson has called for an independent inquiry into the department's investigation of the abduction by a five-member citizens panel, which was expected to be named Monday.

Despite the increasingly disturbing details coming forward regarding Mitchell and the kidnapping, Friday's celebration was a day for many who followed the case's every turn to share in the joy of Elizabeth's safe return.

Ed Smart concluded his words with a prayer of thanks for Elizabeth's safe return. He also prayed for children still missing to return home safely.

After accepting hugs, handshakes and even some gifts from many in the crowd, Ed and Lois Smart were whisked away in a police car.

Performances by the Bryant Intermediate Show Choir, an American Indian dance group and Thurl Bailey filled the air and a fireworks show brought the hourlong celebration to a close.

City officials had planned for about 5,000 people, with all food, tents, stages, sound equipment and balloons donated by local businesses. This list of contributions included 5,000 slices of pizza, 3,000 hotdogs and 5,400 drinks.

"People were calling us. We had to turn people down for food," said Nikki Bown, communications manager with Salt Lake City's Department of Public Services. "It's the easiest thing we've ever had to put together in 24 hours."


Contributing: Julene Thompson, Deseret News

E-MAIL: djensen@desnews.com