PAYSON, Ariz. — At least nine people are dead and one person missing after a flash flood hit an Arizona swimming hole on Saturday afternoon, CBS affiliate KPHO-TV in Phoenix reports.
The Gila County Sheriff’s Office said nine bodies were recovered throughout the day Sunday and that a 27-year-old man is still missing.
Agencies have suspended the search until early Monday morning.
The flash-flooding hit Saturday afternoon at Cold Springs canyon, about 100 northeast of Phoenix, and some people were washed several miles downstream.
Four people were rescued by helicopter crews Saturday and were treated at a nearby hospital for hypothermia.
“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. “They had no warning. They heard a roar, and it was on top of them.”
Disa Alexander was hiking to the swimming area where Ellison Creek and East Verde River converge when the storm hit and the water suddenly surged. She was still about 2.5 miles away when she came up a man holding a baby and clinging to a tree. His wife was nearby, also in a tree.
Alexander and others tried to reach them but couldn’t. Rescuers arrived a short time later.
“We were kinda looking at the water; it was really brown,” she said. “Literally 20 seconds later you just see, like hundreds of gallons of water smacking down and debris and trees getting pulled in. It looked like a really big mudslide.”
The National Weather Service, which had issued a flash flood warning, estimated up to 1.5 inches of rain fell over the area in an hour. The thunderstorm hit about 8 miles upstream along Ellison Creek, which quickly flooded the narrow canyon where the swimmers were.
Gov. Doug Ducey responded to the incident on Facebook.
“Deepest prayers for those lost in the Gila County tragedy, for their families and the entire community. I just spoke with Sheriff Shepherd. In addition to the state of Arizona providing full air support, we will continue to assist in all ways possible,” Ducey said.
Sgt. David Horning said the bank of the Verde River is a rough area.
“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,” Horning said.
The swimming hole is roughly 20 feet wide and 20 feet long with a waterfall above it.
“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.
The flooding came after a severe thunderstorm pounded down on a nearby remote area that had been burned by a recent wildfire, Sattelmaier said.
The “burn scar” was one of the reasons the weather service issued the flash-flood warning.
“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.”
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