Cooling off, then swept away
Flash floods killed at least 9 at a popular swimming hole in Arizona.
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.”