5 children among 9 relatives killed in Arizona flash flood

Associated Press

TONTO NATIONAL FOREST, Ariz. (July 17, 2017) — Five children were among the nine people killed in a flash flood at an Arizona swimming hole during the weekend, and all were part of an extended family, authorities said Monday.

Three generations of the family were gathered Saturday at the swimming spot about 100 miles (160.9 kilometers) northeast of Phoenix, police said. Torrential rains in the fire-scarred mountains miles away unleashed 6-foot-high floodwaters darkened by ash from an earlier wildfire and swept away the victims, who ranged in age from 3 to 57.

Searchers looked Monday for a 27-year-old man who was the only person still missing from the group of 14 family members who gathered at the normally tranquil swimming hole in the Tonto National Forest north of Payson. Authorities initially had said they were looking for a 13-year-old boy but later discovered he was among the victims and the older man was missing.

About 40 volunteer workers and four search dogs were looking for the man, Gila County Sheriff J. Adam Shepherd said.

Disa Alexander was hiking to the swimming area where Ellison Creek and East Verde River converge Saturday when the water suddenly surged. Video she posted to social media showed torrents of water surging through jagged canyons carved in Arizona's signature red rock.

She spotted a man holding a baby and clinging to a tree. Nearby, his wife was also in a tree. A boy Alexander described as the couple's son was on the rocks above the water.

Alexander and others tried to reach them but couldn't. Fortunately help was close by.

Some search and rescue team members were already near the swimming hole after getting a call to help someone who had suffered a bad allergic reaction, Hornung said.

Four people were rescued and treated for hypothermia.

Those killed included five children — 2-year-old Erica Raya-Garcia; Emily Garnica, 3; Mia Garnica, 5; Danial Garnica, 7; and Jonathan Leon, 13. Also killed were Javier Raya-Garcia, 19; Selia Garcia Castaneda, 57; Maribel Raya-Garcia, 24, and Maria Raya-Garcia, 27.

The National Weather Service estimated up to 1.5 inches of rain fell over the area in an hour. The thunderstorm hit about 8 miles (12 kilometers) upstream along Ellison Creek, which quickly flooded the narrow canyon where the swimmers were.

Hornung noted that the National Weather Service had issued a flash flood warning about 1 1/2 hours before, "but unless they had a weather radio out there, they wouldn't have known about it. There is no cellphone service out here."

While Arizona is known for its dryness, it gets bursts of heavy rains during the summer monsoon season. The severe thunderstorm was located in a remote area that had been burned by a recent wildfire, Water Wheel Fire and Medical District Fire Chief Ron Sattelmaier said. The "burn scar" was one of the reasons the weather service issued the flash-flood warning.

"If it's an intense burn, it creates a glaze on the surface that just repels water," said Darren McCollum, a meteorologist

Crowds looking to beat the Phoenix metro area's heat often head to the small creeks that flow out of the mountains forming swimming holes and a series of small waterfalls. But officials warn that visitors need to be aware of the dangers of a flash flood.

"I wish there was a way from keeping people from getting in there during monsoon season," Sattelmaier said. "It happens every year. We've just been lucky something like this hasn't been this tragic."

Sudden flooding in canyons has been deadly before. In 2015, seven people were killed in Utah's Zion National Park when they were trapped during a flash flood while hiking in a popular canyon that was as narrow as a window in some spots and several hundred feet deep.

In 1997, 11 hikers were killed near Page, Arizona, after a wall of water from a rainstorm miles upstream tore through a narrow, twisting series of corkscrew-curved walls on Navajo land known as Lower Antelope Canyon.

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