TONTO NATIONAL FOREST — 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 told The Associated Press that the group from the Phoenix and Flagstaff areas had met up for a daytrip along the popular Cold Springs swimming hole near Payson in central Arizona and were playing in the water Saturday afternoon when muddy flood waters 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 rainfall 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 two 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.”
Video she posted to social media showed torrents of water surging through jagged canyons carved in Arizona’s signature red rock.
“I could have just died!” Alexander exclaimed on the video, which shows the people in the tree and then rescuers arriving on the scene. A boy Alexander described as the couple’s son was on the rocks above the water.
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 two miles down the river. Authorities did not identify them. Four others were rescued Saturday and taken to Banner hospital in nearby Payson for treatment of hypothermia.
Rescuers got to the four victims quickly after the crew heard their cries while they were nearby helping an injured hiker.
Daniel Bustamante, 16, sat on a bench with his friend Daniel Rodriguez outside the local mortuary in Payson where victims were brought. He said he came from Phoenix after getting a Snapchat message from a friend.
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. Some know it was as Ellison Creek or Water Wheel swimming holes.
Hornung said the treacherously swift waters gushed for about 10 minutes before receding in the narrow canyon. He estimated floodwaters reached six feet high and 40 feet wide.
The National Weather Service, which had issued a flash-flood 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 were no notices or warnings at the trailhead, Alexander said.
There had been thunderstorms throughout the area, but it wasn’t raining where the swimmers were at the time.
While Arizona is known for its dryness, it gets bursts of heavy rains during the summer monsoon season.
“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.”
Hornung said there was no way to notify people of the flash-flood warning because cell service is limited and there are no officials stationed in the area. Visitors are reminded to be vigilant about the weather, he said.
Crowds looking to beat the Phoenix metro area’s heat headed to the small creeks that flow out of the mountains forming swimming holes and a series of small waterfalls. Some barbecue along the water’s edge, while others cliff jump into the deeper pools. Farther up the canyon narrows and becomes rockier, its walls steeper.
The flooding came after a severe thunderstorm pounded down on a nearby remote area that 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 Darren McCollum, a meteorologist. “We had some concerns. We got a lot worse news.”
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.