The flash flood that killed nine people in an Arizona river canyon began its deadly descent as an impressive but avoidable surge of churning water, black with cinders from a recent wildfire and choked with tumbling tree trunks and limbs.
By the time it reached a rocky swimming hole several miles downstream, it was a roaring torrent 6 feet (1.8 meters) high, and an extended family celebrating a birthday while seeking refuge from the summer heat had no warning – and no chance to escape. The bodies were found up to 2 miles (3 kilometers) away. Five other people were rescued, some of them clinging desperately to trees, and were treated for hypothermia and released.
As rescuers searched Monday for a 27-year-old man still missing about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northeast of Phoenix, authorities identified the victims, who ranged in age from 2 to 60. Among them were three generations of a family. Five of the dead were children.
The victims had been lounging Saturday in the swimming hole, where rocks create pools and a series of small waterfalls. There the river narrows, squeezing the flow of water and increasing its deadly force. The river roared to life after a thunderstorm had dumped up to 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) of rain in an hour, prompting a flash-flood warning from the National Weather Service. Though the service sent out a flash-flood warning over cellphone networks, service in the remote area is patchy at best.
“They had no warning. They heard a roar, and it was on top of them,” said Fire Chief Ron Sattelmaier of the Water Wheel Fire and Medical District.