Wa­ter roared down burned, dry ground


The flash flood that killed nine peo­ple in an Ari­zona canyon be­gan its deadly de­scent as an im­pres­sive but avoid­able surge of churn­ing wa­ter, black with cin­ders from a re­cent wild­fire and choked with tum­bling tree trunks and limbs.

By the time it reached a rocky swim­ming hole sev­eral kilo­me­tres down­stream, it was a roar­ing tor­rent two me­tres high. An ex­tended fam­ily cel­e­brat­ing a birth­day while seek­ing refuge from the sum­mer heat had no warn­ing — and no chance to es­cape.

The bod­ies were found more than three kilo­me­tres away. Five other peo­ple were res­cued, some of them cling­ing des­per­ately to trees, and were treated for hy­pother­mia.

As res­cuers searched Mon­day for a 27-year-old man still miss­ing about 160 kilo­me­tres north­east of Phoenix, au­thor­i­ties iden­ti­fied the vic­tims, who ranged in age from 2 to 60.

Among them were three gen­er­a­tions of a fam­ily. Five of the dead were chil­dren.

The vic­tims had been loung­ing Satur­day in the Wa­ter Wheel swim­ming hole, where the river nar­rows and rocks cre­ate pools and a se­ries of small wa­ter­falls. The nar­row­ing of the canyon squeezed the flow of wa­ter and helped give it deadly force.

The river roared to life af­ter a thun­der­storm had dumped nearly four cen­time­tres of rain in an hour, prompt­ing a flash flood warn­ing from the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice.

But there is lit­tle or no cell­phone ser­vice in the re­mote area, and without a weather ra­dio, the swim­mers would have been un­aware.

“They had no warn­ing. They heard a roar, and it was on top of them,” said Fire Chief Ron Sat­tel­maier of the Wa­ter Wheel Fire and Med­i­cal District.

Car­rie Tem­plin, a spokesper­son for the Tonto Na­tional For­est, said peo­ple headed to the for­est should check weather alerts ahead of time to de­ter­mine whether it’s safe. It is hard to pre­dict where rain will fall in the desert South­west, and peo­ple should know that heavy down­falls can cause flash flood­ing, Tem­plin said.

“How do you warn peo­ple about Mother Na­ture?” Tem­plin asked.

About 40 vol­un­teer work­ers and four search dogs looked for the miss­ing man.

About eight kilo­me­tres up the moun­tain, where a June wild­fire scorched 17 square kilo­me­tres of the Tonto Na­tional For­est, Scott Muller first spot­ted the wa­ter rum­bling down the nearly dry East Verde River. He was spend­ing the day with a dozen other mem­bers of AZ Krawlers, a vol­un­teer group of Jeep own­ers that was check­ing roads and trails for dan­ger­ous ero­sion and miss­ing signs.

He be­gan mak­ing a video with his phone and com­fort­ably scam­pered to the bank be­fore wa­ter clogged with de­bris whooshed past.

“We had no idea how fast and big it was go­ing to be,” Muller said.

In a wild­fire area, the scorched land re­pels wa­ter, mak­ing flood­ing worse.

Muller and the oth­ers got in their ve­hi­cles and rushed down the moun­tain on an un­paved fire con­trol road to get an­other look. Emerg­ing onto a paved road, they drove up the moun­tain to a bridge that was be­low where the wa­ters would sweep through the swim­ming hole.

There, Muller said, they saw a cou­ple with two young chil­dren play­ing in the placid river and told them to get out be­cause the river would soon be­come a mon­ster.

Sev­eral min­utes later it did.


Searchers head out at Tonto Na­tional Park, Ariz., Mon­day. Nine peo­ple were swept away and killed af­ter a sur­prise flood hit an Ari­zona swim­ming hole.

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