Nine family members — six children and three adults — were killed when a storm unleashed a flash flood that turned an Arizona creek into a death trap.
The victims were among a group from Phoenix enjoying a summer afternoon by cooling off in the waters of the Tonto National Forest on Saturday.
The revelers at the Cold Springs swimming hole near Payson were suddenly inundated by a 40-foot-wide wave that came roaring down from upstream carrying tree limbs and other debris, The Arizona Republic reported.
Maria Raya — who would have celebrated her 26th birthday the next day — and her children, Emily, 3, Mia, 5, and Hector, 7, perished in the deluge, the paper reported,
Also killed were Maria’s sister, Maribel Raya, 24, her daughter, Erika, 2, and Maribel’s brother, Javier, 14, as well as Selia Garcia, 60, the mother of Maria, Maribel and Javier, and Jonathan Leon, 13, Garcia’s grandson.
Maria’s husband, Hector Miguel Garnica, 27, remained missing.
The nine bodies were recovered on Sunday, officials said.
Family members told The Arizona Republic that 14 family members were at the swimming spot when the flood struck about 3 p.m. Saturday.
Maria Mandujano, a cousin of the Raya sisters, said relatives arrived in Payson early Sunday and walked along the creek shouting their loved ones’ names.
They found one of the kids’ bodies in the debris, Mandujano said.
Other relatives waited outside a mortuary later Sunday for news about Hector.
“He has to be found,” said his sister Carla Garnica, 22. “He’s always said, ‘I’m never leaving my children or my wife.’ He has to complete his promise.”
Family friend Tom Price has set up a GoFundMe page that had raised more than $4,000 for funeral costs as of Monday morning.
“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 it’s going to take me to get over it, let alone them.”
Some search-and-rescue team members were already near the swimming hole after getting a call to help a person who had suffered a bad allergic reaction, said Detective Sgt. David Hornung of the Gila County Sheriff’s Department.
When they arrived at the scene, “they heard someone screaming for help and saw a man clinging to a rock,” Hornung said. “Then they heard other people calling for help.”
Four people were rescued and taken to a hospital after suffering from hypothermia.
The National Weather Service estimated that up to 1.5 inches of rain fell over the area in an hour. The thunderstorm hit about 8 miles upstream along Ellison Creek.
Hornung said the National Weather Service had issued a flash flood warning about 1 1/2 hours before, “but unless they had a weather radio out there, they wouldn’t have known about it. There is no cell phone service out here.”
The floodwaters gushed for about 10 minutes before receding in the narrow canyon, Hornung said.
“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.
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