The Arizona Tonto National Forest has closed several areas along the East Verde River due to safety concerns, after 10 people were killed by a flash flood at Cold Springs swimming hole, on July, 15, 2017. The closure will last until Aug. 31.
An intense thunderstorm hit eight miles upstream causing flooding in a nearby canyon that led to a visitors area. The storm dropped about 1.5 inches of rain in a hour.
Hector Garnica, his wife, and his family were at the popular swimming hole celebrating his wife’s birthday. Around 3 p.m., MT, a 6-foot-high wall of debris and muddy water hit the shore, and swept away 14 people.
Tonto Rim Search and Rescue arrived within 20 minutes. They were nearby tending to a hiker with an allergic reaction. Personnel were able to rescue four people, who were treated for hypothermia at Banner Hospital, in Payson.
Sgt. David Hornung said, “When they were finishing that up, they heard people yelling for help, and they went down to the river and found them. Had they not been there, it probably would have been an hour before any search-and-rescue got there.”
Maria Garnica, Hector’s wife, their children, and some extended family members were killed. Hector was missing for nearly a week before the search crew located his body.
Garnica’s sister, Carla told ABC’s affiliate in Phoenix, “He has to be found. They can’t stop looking until his body is found.”
Tonto Rim Search and Rescue spent hours searching, on Tuesday, but the search was called off because more thunderstorms were approaching. Crews found Garnica’s body in canyon filled with water and debris, near Central Arizona. More than 120 people searched for the body, along with dogs and drones.
The National Weather Service had issued a flash-flood warning earlier that day, but without proper communication devices like a weather radio, they were not aware of the flood warning. The report said, “flash flooding was likely within creeks and washes draining from the Highline scar.”
Steve Stevens, a volunteer firefighter with the Water Wheel Fire and Medical District stated, “The clouds over on the other side of the mountain can be dumping buckets, and all of a sudden there’s a wall of water coming through that just wipes out everything in its path.”
Arizona Governor Doug Ducey tweeted, “Deepest prayers for those lost in the Gila County Tragedy, for their families and the entire community.”
These deaths have raised questions on whether the government could have done more to warn people about the potential flash flooding in the wilderness areas.
Forest Service spokeswoman, Carrie Templin stated, “There is no system currently in place to specifically warn people about the potential dangers of flash floods at the Tonto National Forest. The forest is more than 3 million acres and there are over 5,000 roads.”
There are signs about hazardous conditions around the Tonto forest that include flash flooding. Officials also noted that resident and other visitors know its hard to predict when rain will come in the southern desert and they know how heavy downpour can cause flooding.
Sgt. Hornung said, “I’m not trying to be negative, but you could put up all the signs you want, and people are going to still want to come in here and recreate. We have a hard time, when they close the forest due to fire restrictions, of keeping people out.”
A total of 5 children and 5 adults were killed, and four victims were rescued.
In 1997, 11 hikers were killed in a flood near Lower Antelope Canyon, in Page, Arizona. In 2015, seven people were killed from flooding in Utah’s Zion National Park. Visitors are unable to receive weather alerts on their phones because there is little to no cellular service in these areas, which is part of the human draw to nature.
Written by Nicole Thompson
Edited by Jeanette Smith
Los Angeles Times: 9 Dead, one missing in Flash Flood at Arizona Swimming Hole
ABC: Family makes desperate plea to find missing Arizona flash flood victim
Arizona Daily Sun: Flash flood Kills 5 children, 4 adults at Payson Swim-hole
CBS: Search intensifies for man still missing 2 days after Arizona Flash Flood
Featured and Top Image by James Tappero’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License