Arizona swimming hole flash flood: What we know now

A weekend day at a popular Arizona swimming hole turned deadly. Here’s what we know now.

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A weekend day at a popular Arizona swimming hole turned deadly. Here’s what we know now.

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Carla Garnica, 22, describes the search for her family members, at least 9 of whom were killed in the flash flood.

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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

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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

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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

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Several children died in the flash flood.
Yihyun Jeong/The Republic

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This video of a flash flood in the Water Wheel area outside of Payson was posted June 15 by YouTube user David Cole.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety searches for victims following a a flash flood near the Water Wheel campground in the Tonto National Forest Sunday, July 16, 2017 in Payson, Ariz.(Photo: David Kadlubowski/The Republic)

A weekend day at a popular Arizona swimming hole turned deadly after a flash flood swept away at least 10 people. Details about the tragedy, which claimed the lives of at least six children, are still emerging. 

Here’s what we know as of Sunday, July 16. 

On Saturday afternoon, as 100 people or more enjoyed a hot summer day at the Cold Springs swimming hole in the forest north of Payson, Ariz., a thunderstorm began to pour rain nearby. Local fire officials told The Arizona Republic that water raced downstream and apparently left many people swept away or stranded.

Local officials had not released names of the victims Sunday afternoon, but relatives from Phoenix who had driven to Payson told Republic reporters that more than a dozen family members had driven to the area for a weekend getaway and birthday celebration. They said the dead included: 

Hector Miguel Garnica, 27, is still missing after the flash flood near Payson. His 7-year-old son Danny Garnica, along with his wife and two other children, died in the flood. (Photo: Courtesy of Carla Garnica)

Still missing as of Sunday afternoon was:

Three bodies were recovered Saturday and six others were found Sunday. Two adults and two children rescued by helicopter Saturday were taken to Banner Payson Medical Center and treated for hypothermia and then released, officials told The Republic.

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The first 911 call shortly after 3 p.m. Saturday reported flooding at a swimming hole known as Cold Springs, in the Tonto National Forest just north of Payson.

The entire region is a summer-getaway destination for Arizona, especially for people from the hot Phoenix metro area, because temperatures are far cooler at Payson’s higher elevation.

The scenic Mogollon Rim, a unique 200-mile-long cliff above the mountainous area, towers over countless forest groves, campgrounds, creeks and swimming holes. Much of the backcountry is part of the Tonto National Forest. 

Officials said the swimming spot where the tragedy hit was Cold Springs, near a campground and recreation area known as the Water Wheel. 

Water Wheel is a set of campgrounds and recreation sites along Houston Mesa Road, which leads north into the forest from Payson. The road follows the East Verde River, which flows downstream from the Mogollon Rim. Another waterway, Ellison Creek, joins the river in that area. 

Swimming areas around Water Wheel recreational area, seen here in 2015, are marked by cool pools and steep, narrow canyons. (Photo: Isaac Hale, Isaac Hale/The Republic)

Water Wheel is named after an old water wheel in the area. It’s an area marked by idyllic swimming and fishing pools along the river, but also by steep rock walls that narrow the riverbed to a near-vertical canyon at some spots. 

The thunderstorm hit about 8 miles upstream from the swimming hole.  

“They had no warning. They heard a roar and it was on top of them,” said Water Wheel Fire and Medical District Fire Chief Ron Sattelmaier. 

Saturday’s thunderstorm pounded down on a nearby remote area that had been burned over by the Highline Fire earlier this summer. There had been thunderstorms throughout the area near Payson.

But it wasn’t raining where the swimmers were. Indeed, a government stream-flow gauge nearby, up the East Verde, shows not a blip in increased water flows from Friday through Saturday. 

Instead, water apparently raced down Ellison Creek, which quickly flooded the narrow canyon at the swimming area. One rescue worker told the Arizona Republic that it was a “six-foot tall, 40-foot-wide black wave.” 

Flash floods may not be commonly associated with arid Arizona, but they do happen with some frequency. Dozens of people have died in flash floods in recent decades. 

Check back with azcentral.com for updates.