Searching for flash-flood victims
A Navajo County, Ariz., rescuer searches a riverbank where a body was found Monday in Tonto National Forest. Rescuers continued to search for a 27-year-old man who was among more than a dozen people swept away as flash flooding inundated an area swimming hole Saturday.
TONTO NATIONAL FOREST, Ariz. — The flash flood that killed nine people in an Arizona canyon began its deadly descent as a 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 miles downstream, it was a roaring torrent 6 feet high, and a family celebrating a birthday had no warning — and no chance to escape.
The bodies were found up to 2 miles away. Five other people were rescued, some of them clinging desperately to trees, and were treated for hypothermia and released.
As rescuers searched Monday for a 27-year-old man still missing about 100 miles northeast of Phoenix, authorities identified the victims, who ranged in age from 2 to 60.
Detective David Hornung of the Gila County sheriff’s office said Monday that the wife of the missing man, Hector Garnica, died in the floodwaters.
Hornung confirmed that Garnica’s children, 7-year-old Danial, 5-year-old Mia and 3-year-old Emily Garnica, also died in the flood.
Family and friends identified 26-year-old Maria Raya-Garcia, whose birthday the group was celebrating, as Hector Garnica’s wife.
In all, nine people who were part of Garnica’s extended family died after being swept away. Five of the dead were children.
The other dead children were identified by authorities and family members as 2-year-old Erica Raya-Garcia and Jonathan Leon, 13. Also killed were Javier Raya-Garcia, 19; Celia Garcia Castaneda, 60; Maribel Raya-Garcia, 24.
The victims had been lounging Saturday in the Water Wheel swimming hole, where the river narrows and rocks create pools. 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 up to 1½ inches 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.
Carrie Templin, a spokesman 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 5 miles up the mountain, where a June wildfire scorched 11 square miles 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 that was checking roads and trails for dangerous erosion and missing signs.
“We had no idea how fast and big it was going to be,” Muller said.
Muller and the others with him rushed to get another look. 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 river and told them to get out.
Neither Muller nor the group’s leader, Ken Maki, said they knew of the swimming hole about a mile upriver.