Cool­ing off, then swept away

Flash floods killed at least 9 at a pop­u­lar swim­ming hole in Ari­zona.

Star Tribune - - NATION & WORLD - By ANITA SNOW and ALINA HARTOUNIAN Associated Press

TONTO NA­TIONAL FOR­EST, ARIZ. – Nine peo­ple died and a 13-year-old boy was missing Sun­day af­ter their group of fam­ily and friends was swept away while cool­ing off in a creek that sud­denly turned treach­er­ous when a rain­storm up­stream un­leashed flood­wa­ters in Ari­zona’s Tonto Na­tional For­est.

Gila County Sher­iff ’s De­tec­tive David Hor­nung said that the group from the Phoenix and Flagstaff ar­eas had met up for a day trip along the pop­u­lar Cold Springs swim­ming hole near Payson in cen­tral Ari­zona and were play­ing in the wa­ter Satur­day af­ter­noon when muddy flood­wa­ters came roar­ing down the canyon.

The group, rang­ing in age from 2 to 60, had set out chairs to lounge on a warm sum­mer day when miles up­stream an in­tense thun­der­storm dumped heavy rain on the moun­tain.

Disa Alexan­der was hik­ing to the swim­ming area where El­li­son Creek and East Verde River con­verge when the wa­ter sud­denly surged. She was still about 2 miles away when she spot­ted a man hold­ing a baby and cling­ing to a tree. His wife was nearby, also in a tree. Had they been swept down­stream, they would have been sent over a 20-foot wa­ter­fall, Alexan­der said. Alexan­der and others tried to reach them but couldn’t. Res­cuers ar­rived a short time later.

“We were kinda look­ing at the wa­ter; it was re­ally brown,” she said. “Lit­er­ally 20 sec­onds later you just see like hun­dreds of gal­lons of wa­ter smack­ing down and de­bris and trees get­ting pulled in. It looked like a re­ally big mud­slide.”

Search and res­cue crews, in­clud­ing 40 peo­ple on foot and others in a he­li­copter, re­cov­ered the bod­ies of five chil­dren and four adults, some as far as 2 miles down­river. Au­thor­i­ties did not iden­tify them. Four others were res­cued Satur­day and taken to a hos­pi­tal in nearby Payson for treat­ment of hy­pother­mia.

The flash-flood­ing hit Satur­day af­ter­noon at Cold Springs canyon, about 100 miles north­east of Phoenix, a pop­u­lar recre­ation area reached by rel­a­tively easy hik­ing paths.

Hor­nung said the treach­er­ously swift wa­ters gushed for about 10 min­utes be­fore re­ced­ing in the nar­row canyon. He es­ti­mated flood­wa­ters reached 6 feet high and 40 feet wide.

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

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

There had been thun­der­storms through­out the area, but it wasn’t rain­ing where the swim­mers were at the time.

“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.”

A re­mote area near the flood­ing had been burned by a re­cent wild­fire, 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 me­te­o­rol­o­gist Dar­ren McCol­lum. “We had some con­cerns. We got a lot worse news.”

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