4 dead, 3 missing in Zion Nat'l Park flooding

Posted at 6:36 PM, Sep 15, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-15 21:36:26-04

Heavy rain sent flash floods coursing through a narrow slot canyon in southern Utah's Zion National Park, killing four people and leaving three others missing, officials said Tuesday night.

Four bodies were found a day after the group of four men and three women set out Monday to hike down the canyon, park spokeswoman Holly Baker said. They went canyoneering before park officials closed slot canyons that evening due to flood warnings.

The deaths come after 12 people died when fast-moving floodwaters swept away two vehicles Monday near the Utah-Arizona border, about 20 miles south of the park. One person remains missing from the small polygamous town of Hildale.

In Zion, the risk of additional flash flooding kept rescuers from entering the canyon to search for the missing hikers. The group hailed from California and Nevada and were all in their 40s and 50s, Baker said. She said their identities were not being released until their families were notified, but the bodies found Tuesday were those of three men and one woman.

The first body was found around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday and a second body was found an hour later. The third body was found later Tuesday afternoon and a fourth was found in the evening, Baker said.

Two were found near the mouth of the canyon, and two were downstream.

Baker said rescuers Tuesday evening were searching downstream for the man and two women who were still missing. She said park officials have no way of knowing if the three people missing were trapped in the canyon or had been carried downstream.

Park rangers advised the group when they picked up their permit Monday morning that weather conditions were poor and flooding was likely, Baker said. But until canyons are closed, rangers leave it up to visitors to determine whether it's safe to continue their excursions, she said.

The park doesn't close canyons until there is actual flooding, which happened around 5 p.m. Monday, she said.

Baker said the group of seven was spotted in the canyon about an hour earlier by another group on their way out.

That group of hikers alerted a ranger, but at that point flash flooding had begun and the ranger couldn't enter, she said.

Park rangers found the group's empty cars at the canyon's trailhead that evening. Baker said conditions were too risky for rescuers to enter Tuesday so they yelled in from above and below the canyon but heard no response.

The group was in Keyhole Canyon, which narrows to 6 feet across in parts and involves climbing, rappelling and swimming through several pools of water. The half-mile canyon takes anywhere from an hour to about four hours to complete, and only 80 people are allowed in per day.

Baker said the park received 0.63 inch of rain in one hour Monday.

The National Weather Service issued flash flood warnings through 7:45 p.m. Tuesday for Zion National Park, as the saturated area could be hit again with light to moderate rainfall.

The warning said rivers and streams at the popular park and in neighboring Springdale and Rockville are already elevated and additional rain will swell the waterways to dangerous levels.

Zion is the most-visited of Utah's five national parks and attracts nearly 3 million visitors a year.

Last year, a 34-year-old California man was killed after rising floodwaters trapped him in The Narrows, a popular canyon trail where hikers wade through the Virgin River as it winds between steep canyon walls.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Tuesday he mourned the lives lost in Zion and in the border towns.

"Today's tragedy also serves as a reminder to residents and those visiting our state to take appropriate precautions and be aware of the factors that contribute to dangerous flash floods," Herbert said in a statement.