Payson flash flooding deaths: 9 confirmed dead, 1 still missing

Posted at 8:11 AM, Jul 16, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-18 15:38:54-04

Nine people are dead and a 27-year-old man is still missing following flash flooding at the Cold Springs Swimming Hole, north of Payson, according to the Gila County Sheriff's Office.

Around 4 p.m. Monday, officials said they were suspending the search for the missing man due to pending inclement weather in the area. Search efforts will begin again on Tuesday morning.

MAP: Flash flooding search and rescue efforts

Deputies say just before 3:30 p.m. on Saturday they received a 911 call regarding a search and rescue operation around the swimming hole for missing individuals. 

Dozens of people were at the river swimming on Saturday afternoon when a flash flood came from above them, according to officials. Some people were washed several miles downstream during the incident.

“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.

According to a GCSO spokesperson, a family from Flagstaff and Phoenix was playing in the eight-foot deep watering hole when the incident occurred. 

Video shot by witness Disa Alexander shortly after the flood showed a man in a tree holding his baby as water rushed around him. His wife was a short ways away from him, also clinging to a tree.

Five bodies were recovered on Sunday and four were recovered on Saturday, GCSO said. 

The victims who were found dead on Saturday and Sunday were identified by Gila County Sheriff's Office on Monday as: Jonathan Leon, 13; Mia Garnica, 5; Emily Garnica, 3; Daniel Garnica, 7; Javier Raya-Garcia, 19; Selia Garcia Castaneda, 57; Erica Raya-Garcia, 2; Maribel Raya-Garcia, 24; and Maria Raya-Garcia, 27. 

A family member told ABC15 that Hector Garnica, 27, is still missing. Forty volunteers are continuing the search for the missing man. 

Gila County Sheriff J. Adam Shepherd said crews are continuing to search for others who are still missing at Tonto National Forest. 

Deputies, along with Tonto Rim Search and Rescue, the Whispering Pines Fire Department, the U.S. Forest Service and the Arizona Department of Public Safety were able to rescue four people and they were transported to the hospital with hypothermia. They have since been released from the hospital. 

"There's no way of knowing how many people were actually there," Medical District Fire chief Ron Sattelmaier said. "It's pretty much recovery (now). We don't believe there's anybody left out there." The thunderstorm hit about 8 miles upstream along Ellison Creek, which quickly flooded the narrow canyon where the swimmers were enjoying a cool dip on a hot summer day.

Meteorologists had issued a Flash Flood Warning surrounding the popular swimming area inside the Tonto National Forest before the water gushed into the narrow canyon.

Residents said they'd never seen anything like the deadly flooding.

“I don’t recall anything of this magnitude,” said Sgt. David Hornung, Gila County Sheriff’s Office.

Governor Doug Ducey took to Twitter Sunday afternoon to offer his condolences to the families affected by the tragic incident.

Gov. Ducey also released a statement following deaths of multiple people.

The area sustained heavy rain throughout the region causing flash flooding on Saturday. The weather service estimates that up to 1.5 inches of rain fell over the area over an hour, and that the drainage took at least 30 minutes to reach the swimming hole. The thunderstorm hit about 8 miles upstream along Ellison Creek, which quickly flooded the narrow canyon where the swimmers were enjoying a cool dip a on a hot summer day, with highs in the 80s.

Latest weather conditions can be found here.

"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 family has set up an online fundraising page to help cover the costs of the funerals. Those who would like to donate can do so here.

A Flash Flood Watch is in effect for the southeastern part of the state from Sunday afternoon through Monday evening, the National Weather Service says.

The flooding came after a severe thunderstorm pounded down on a nearby remote area that had been burned by a recent wildfire, Sattelmaier said.

Stay with ABC15 and for updates on this developing story.