9 killed, 1 missing after flash flood tears through swimming hole near Payson

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A flash flood swept through a swimming hole near Payson Saturday afternoon (Source: Photo courtesy of Amy Lloyd) A flash flood swept through a swimming hole near Payson Saturday afternoon (Source: Photo courtesy of Amy Lloyd)
A flash flood swept through a swimming hole near Payson Saturday afternoon (Source: Photo courtesy of Amy Lloyd) A flash flood swept through a swimming hole near Payson Saturday afternoon (Source: Photo courtesy of Amy Lloyd)
A flash flood swept through a swimming hole near Payson Saturday afternoon (Source: Photo courtesy of Amy Lloyd) A flash flood swept through a swimming hole near Payson Saturday afternoon (Source: Photo courtesy of Amy Lloyd)

Officials have identified the nine people that died in a flash flood north of Payson near the Cold Springs swimming hole.

Gila County Sheriff's Office said that a total of nine bodies were recovered throughout the day on Sunday.

The victims are identified as the following: 

  • Jonathan Leon, age 13
  • Mia Garnica, age 5
  • Emily Garnica, age 3
  • Danial Garnica, age 7
  • Javier Raya-Garcia, age 19
  • Selia Garcia Castaneda, age 57
  • Erica Raya-Garcia, age 2
  • Maribel Raya-Garcia, age 24
  • Maria Raya-Garcia, age 27

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A 27-year-old man is still missing. The Sheriff's Office had 35 search-and-rescue members on scene looking for the missing man, but the search was suspended Monday afternoon because of looming weather.

Four individuals identified as 29-year-old Julio Garcia, 28-year-old Esthela Atonodo, 8-year-old Asis Garcia and 1-year-old Marina Garcia were rescued and survived the flood.

According to GCSO, deputies responded to a search and rescue call around 3 p.m. Saturday after heavy rains caused flash flooding in the area.

Gila County Sgt. David Hornung confirmed that the ages of the children involved were 2 to 17 years old. Hornung also said the victims included three adults, ages 24, 27 and 60 years old.

Hornung did not release any names but did say this was a huge extended family gathering with up to 40 to 50 family members.

Meteorologists had issued a flash-flood warning surrounding a popular swimming area inside the Tonto National Forest before the wave of water gushed through the narrow canyon.

Authorities estimated more than 100 people were in or near the swimming area when a severe thunderstorm pounded down on a nearby fire.

[RELATED: Monsoon wallops state with torrential rain, gusty winds, lightning and even hail]

GCSO said a family of 14 people were swimming in the area and were swept away in the flash flood. Multiple agencies responded to aid in search and rescue efforts. 

Search teams were already in the area because of a hiker that had a medical issue unrelated to the flood. Then they get a call that a man was stuck on a rock due to the flooding. They were able to rescue him and three more people.

A woman who was hiking to the swimming hole said she saw people clinging to trees after the water rushed down a normally calm creek near the trail.

Video that Disa Alexander shot shortly after the flood showed a man in a tree holding his baby as water rushed around him. His wife was a short ways away from him, also clinging to a tree.

[SLIDESHOW: Deadly flash flood at swimming hole near Payson]

There was no warning before the wall of water hit, Alexander said.

Four people rescued by helicopter Saturday were taken to the hospital for hypothermia. 

Sgt. Hornung said all four were treated at the hospital for minor injuries and have been released.

"It's pretty much recovery (now). We don't believe there's anybody left out there," Water Wheel Fire and Medical District Fire Chief Ron Sattelmaier said

[RAW VIDEO: Rescue teams at flash flooding north of Payson, courtesy of Mindy Russell]

Six bodies were found on Saturday and another three were found on Sunday. Agencies are still looking for a 27-year-old man. 

The weather service estimates that up to 1.5 inches of rain fell over the area over an hour and that the drainage took at least 30 minutes to reach the swimming hole. The thunderstorm hit about 8 miles upstream along Ellison Creek, which quickly flooded the narrow canyon where the swimmers were enjoying a cool dip on a hot summer day, with highs in the 80s.

"They had no warning. They heard a roar, and it was on top of them," Sattelmaier said.

GCSO said in a press release that First Crossing and Second Crossing on Houston Mesa Road as well as Waterwheel are closed.

[SPECIAL SECTION: Monsoon 2017]

The investigation is still active and agencies are currently searching for the missing man. 

"The bank of the Verde River is a rough area," David Horning with the Gila County Sheriff's Office said. "It's overgrown. It's rocky. There's holes and now there's the soot and the mud from the flash flood and that's hampering that too so there are a lot of debris piles so trying to check through and making sure that there's nobody in there. We've got about 5 miles of river to search."

[RAW VIDEO: David Horning with GCSO speaks about flood]

The swimming hole is about 20 feet wide and 20 feet long with a water fall above it.

There had been thunderstorms throughout the area near Payson, about an hour and half's drive from Phoenix, but it wasn't raining where the swimmers were at the time. But it happened during monsoon season, when whether like this can strike furiously. Monsoon thunderstorms are a common, nearly daily occurrence in Arizona thanks to the mix of heat and moisture in the summer months.

"I wish there was a way from keeping people from getting in there during monsoon season. It happens every year. We've just been lucky something like this hasn't been this tragic," Sattelmaier said.

[RAW VIDEO: Interview with Whispering Pines Fire Chief, Ron Sattelmaier]

The flooding came after a severe thunderstorm pounded down on a nearby remote area that had been burned by a recent wildfire, Sattelmaier said.

That wildfire was the Highline Fire, which burned nearly 7,200 acres, and was contained a few weeks ago.

The prospect of brewing monsoon thunderstorms and the deep burn scar over the ground that had charred away the pine trees, foliage and ground dust that would normally absorb rain were such a concern that the National Weather Service issued a flash-flood warning about an hour and a half before emergency crews were called to the scene.

"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."

Governor Doug Ducey released a statement in regard to the flash flood.

“My deepest prayers go out for all those lost in yesterday’s flooding, for their families, and for the entire community. I spoke with Sheriff Shepherd today to offer my support and the full assistance of the state. In addition to the Arizona Department of Public Safety providing air support, Arizona will continue to work closely with local officials during this tragedy and make any necessary resources available."

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