Carla Garnica, 22, describes the search for her family members, at least 9 of whom were killed in the flash flood.
A rural fire chief says at least four people were found dead and about a dozen more are missing after flash flooding poured over a popular swimming area inside the Tonto National Forest in central Arizona. (July 16) AP
22-year-old Carla Garnica’s brother Miguel, 27, is still missing. Nine of their family members were killed in the flood. Video courtesy of Telemundo Arizona
Officials search for drowning victims following a flash flood at a popular swimming hole north of Payson that at least killed nine people from a Phoenix family. David Kadlubowski/The Republic
Several children died in the flash flood. Yihyun Jeong/The Republic
Maria Raya’s 26th birthday was Sunday. Phoenix in July was searing hot.
So Maria and her family headed to Arizona’s high country for what should have been a peaceful weekend splashing in a cool mountain stream.
Instead, their trip turned deadly when a “40-foot-wide black wave” of rainwater, mud and debris tore through a narrow canyon and swept the family away on Saturday.
The water took Maria, the day before her birthday. It took her three children ages 3, 5 and 7, most likely her husband, as well, and five other family members, relatives said.
It led other relatives to clamber along the creek through knee-deep water, in the dark, shouting their names, until they made a terrible discovery: one child’s body in the debris.
By Sunday, nine had been confirmed dead. Maria Raya’s husband, Hector Miguel Garnica, 27, was still missing.
Officials had not released the names of the dead, but family members, who drove to Payson to help search, told The Arizona Republic that 14 family members were at the swimming hole when the flood struck around 3 p.m. Saturday.
The victims included:
- Maria Raya, who would have turned 26 on Sunday, and her children Emily, 3, and Mia, 5, and Hector Daniel, 7.
- Maria’s sister Maribel Raya, 24, her daughter Erika Raya, 2, and Maribel’s brother Javier Raya, 14.
- Selia Garcia, 60, the mother of Maria, Maribel and Javier.
- Jonathan Leon, 13, Celia Garcia’s grandson.
All were from Phoenix.
Four other family members, a married couple and their two children, were treated at a local hospital for hypothermia and were released.
And even when officials suspended the search Saturday night, the family kept searching.
An anguished search
Maria Mandujano, a cousin of the Raya sisters, said that family members arrived in Payson at about 2 a.m. Sunday. The family members walked along the creek, knee-deep in water shouting their loved ones’ names.
They found one of the children’s bodies in the debris, Mandujano said.
Other family members waited outside a Payson mortuary later Sunday for news of the missing man.
“He has to be found,” said Hector Miguel Garnica’s sister Carla Garnica, 22. “He’s always said, ‘I’m never leaving my children or my wife.’ He has to complete his promise.”
Tom Price, who said he knows Garnica and the rest of the family, set up a GoFundMe page that had raised more than $2,800 for funeral costs as of Sunday evening.
“I hope that they can find (Hector) Miguel so that he can be buried with his family and hopefully they can somehow move on past this,” Price said. “I don’t know how. It’ll take some serious time. I don’t even know how long its going to take me to get over it, let alone them.”
The Gila County Sheriff’s Office received a 911 call shortly after 3 p.m. Saturday about flash flooding at a swimming hole known as Cold Springs near the Water Wheel campground in the Tonto National Forest.
At Cold Springs swimming hole
Water Wheel Fire and Medical District Fire Chief Ron Sattelmaier said more than a hundred people were in the Cold Springs swimming hole Saturday afternoon when a severe thunderstorm pounded down on a nearby remote area that had been burned over by the Highline Fire earlier this summer.
It was not even raining where the people were swept away. The thunderstorm hit about eight miles upstream along Ellison Creek, which quickly flooded the narrow canyon where the swimmers were enjoying a cool dip on a hot summer day.
“They had no warning. They heard a roar and it was on top of them,” Sattelmaier said.
One of the first responders told The Arizona Republic that it was a “six-foot tall, 40-foot-wide black wave” moving at 45 mph through a narrow canyon. It took down trees and boulders and soot and ash from the fire scar.
When they responded to the 911 call, the first rescuers heard a man call for help and found him holding onto a boulder in the middle of the creek with water rising around him. A Department of Public Safety helicopter pulled him, his wife and their daughter to safety.
Four people were rescued Saturday afternoon. Three bodies were recovered. Another six bodies were found through the course of Sunday.
By Sunday afternoon, officials had set up a command post near the Water Wheel campgrounds. A DPS helicopter buzzed above, still searching. Searchers with rubber boots and walking sticks traversed the rocky canyon.
Iris Garnica, a cousin of the missing man, told reporters in Spanish that “the boy who survived said it was so fast. The water came, and the rocks, and it took the family. They managed to hold on to a branch or a trunk.”
“They spent two hours in a tree waiting to be rescued with their 1-year-old,” she said.
She paused, and put her hand to her face, then said, “It’s so difficult to lose an entire family!”