Payson flash flooding deaths: How could this happen?

PAYSON, AZ - The videos and pictures from the scene of a deadly flash flood north of Payson are devastating.

Witnesses said they heard a roar before a wall of water, four feet high, appeared out of nowhere and swept away 14 people who were celebrating a birthday party at the Cold Springs Swimming Hole near the Water Wheel Campground on Saturday afternoon.

Take a 360-degree look at the area around the flash flooding and learn about the timeline of events surrounding the fatal flash flooding. MOBILE USERS: Click here to view this video in 360-degree mode.

Nine people were killed and one is still missing. Four were taken to the hospital where they were treated for hypothermia.

How could this happen?

The Gila County Sheriff’s Office says a combination of heavy rains and a burn scar from the 7,000-acre Highline Fire in June combined to form the deadly wave.

“There’s very little vegetation and the water just runs right off, so that added to the flash flood. It also added a lot of debris and ash from that fire,” said Sgt. David Hornung, with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office.

According to the National Weather Service, rainfall that would normally be absorbed by the soil will run extremely quickly after a wildfire.

“If you can look uphill from where you are and see a burnt-out area, you are at risk,” the NWS website says. “Steep terrain combined with a severe burn scar and light precipitation can result in flash flooding within minutes of precipitation beginning.”

A map of the area shows a bend in the canyon just before the Water Wheel Campground, potentially hiding the wall of water until it was too late to react.

Warnings issued

A Flash Flood Warning had been issued for the area at 1:43 p.m. The National Weather Service in Flagstaff says the warning would have triggered an alert on mobile devices using the Wireless Emergency Alert System.

The alert read: “At 142 PM MST, Doppler radar indicated thunderstorms producing heavy rain over the Highline Fire scar. Flash flooding within the scar and downstream is expected to begin shortly. Some locations that will experience flooding include...Whispering Pines, Bonita Creek Estates, Ellison Creek Estates, La Cienega Estates, Pyle Ranch… Move to higher ground now. Act quickly to protect your life.”

The warning was clear: Get out of the water. But the area is notorious for bad cell phone service -- did anyone at the swimming hole even see the warning?

Rescue operations begin

About 1 hour and 37 minutes after the first flood warning, the Gila County Sheriff’s Office began receiving emergency calls. Rescue crews responded and were able to rescue four people using a helicopter -- others had already been swept miles downstream.

“I don’t recall anything of this magnitude,” Hornung said.

Four bodies were recovered on Saturday and five more on Sunday.

In August 2016, swift water rescue crews were called to the same location for a similar incident, but residents said they have never seen anything like what happened Saturday.

“The wall of water that came down, when I heard it coming, was a good four feet, with debris. Big, huge logs, as big as trees,” said Albert Masterson, who lives nearby.

Forty volunteers are still searching for the one missing victim, identified by a relative as 27-year-old Hector Garnica.

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