Sole survivor of Antelope Canyon flash flood describes horrific tragedy 20 years later

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Dangerous flash floods are all too common in Arizona and they can develop without warning. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5, MCSO, Amy Lloyd) Dangerous flash floods are all too common in Arizona and they can develop without warning. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5, MCSO, Amy Lloyd)
(3TV/CBS 5) -

Every summer in Arizona, we're reminded that dangerous flash floods will develop without warning.

Most recently, on the morning of July 24, heavy rains from thunderstorms turned roads into rivers across Apache Junction. A young woman became trapped in her car after she drove into the raging waters.

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Thankfully, firefighters were able to rescue her.

[READ MORE: Car gets trapped on flooded road; driver rescued]

Sadly, it wasn't the same outcome on July 15, when 10 family members were killed near Payson after a torrent swept through an otherwise quiet swimming hole.

[RELATED: Vigil held for Payson flash flood victims]

A few months ago, while working on a story for our annual monsoon special, I spoke with a man who knows all too well the deadly outcome flash flooding can bring.

[SPECIAL SECTION: Monsoon 2017]

His name is Pancho Quintana.

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This year, August 12 will mark the 20th anniversary of the day when Quintana survived a flash flood that killed 11 tourists he was leading on a tour through Lower Antelope Canyon.

For those of you unfamiliar with the area, Antelope Canyon is one of the most beautiful natural formations, and one of the most dangerous, when surges of rainwater fill the 200-foot-deep corkscrew passage. It’s located about 5 miles southeast of Page in northern Arizona.

Quintana recounted that fateful day in 1997.

“In the morning it sprinkled, when we first got there, so they said to come out of the canyon.”

According to a report by the National Weather Service, the group was warned not to enter the canyon because of a flood potential from an approaching thunderstorm several miles away.

“I asked the lady there if we can go back in, and she looked up at the sky, and she said, 'Yeah.’"

Disaster unfolded.

“The walls started shaking, and the dirt started jumping, like bouncing off the ground, like everywhere. I thought, 'it's an earthquake,' because I'm from California. We've got earthquakes.”

Five miles upstream, a downpour caused a 30 foot wall of water to crash down on the canyon.

“And then I saw this tail of water, like off of a jet ski, shoot off about 10 feet in the air, and I went 'oh my God it's water.' You have no idea the force that is behind something like that.”

Quintana watched as several of the hikers were swept away.

“The water came, and bodies started flying down. The first couple were like rag dolls, flopping down through the canyon.”

Then several more were pulled by the torrent.

“We were dying. There was no way out. We were going down through that canyon if that water didn't stop.”

After being carried several miles downstream, the 11 tourists drowned, but Quintana survived.

“My whole body was filled up with sand, and all the water was receding out of my body.”

He’s since never been the same.

“It's been 20 years. You hear people say live life to the fullest. That's nothing compared to how I live. Every day is a gift.”

Today, Quintana continues to spread this message about flash floods.

“It's nothing to play with. It's not a game. Heed the warnings. It'll come quick.”

[SPECIAL SECTION: Weather blog]

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Copyright 2017 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.


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