'Why me?' Survivor recounts deadly Payson flash flood

Posted at 8:16 AM, Sep 21, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-22 01:29:25-04

When a wall of water came toward him, all Cesar Garcia could think to do was protect his young daughter and try to save his nephew.

Garcia and his extended family were celebrating his sister's birthday with a trip from Phoenix to a waterfall known as Water Wheel in the central Arizona wilderness. 

The family, including his mother, sisters and brother, brother-in-law, nieces and nephews, were a mile into their hike when a flash flood hit July 15, an unrelenting torrent that killed everyone in the group of 14 except Garcia, his wife and two children.

"All of the sudden this wave appeared from far away, and I screamed to them, `Hey, let's get out of the way! Let's get out of the way!' But it was coming too fast, we couldn't do anything," he told The Associated Press in his Phoenix home Wednesday. 

Garcia instinctively clutched his 1-year-old daughter, Marina, and grabbed the shirt of his nephew who had fallen. But the boy slipped from his grasp. 

"I couldn't hold on to him," he said. "After that, it was just water, debris." 

Rocks and trees in the water slammed into Garcia, tearing flesh from his legs and bruising his rib as he tried to shield his tiny daughter. The pair went under and Garcia was able to grab hold of a bush.

But the force of the torrent was too strong, and they were washed away a second time, swallowed up by the muddy slurry tearing through jagged rocks.

"All I could think of was like, `Hold on to my baby.' If I didn't hold on to her, she was going to be gone," he said.

"You don't really think about saving yourself, you just think about the kids. You get hit, whatever, you just hold on to them, never let them go," he said. 

Garcia managed to latch on to a tree, still keeping his grip on little Marina. Soon, hikers appeared, and he asked if they had seen any others. 

Yes, they said, a little way up was Garcia's wife. Nearby was his then-8-year-old son, who escaped the water's fury largely unscathed.

Garcia said his instinct was to help the children near him, and he believes that's how his family reacted as well. Five children were among the 10 people who died in an instant.

"(The adults) didn't want to save themselves because they were looking after the kids," he said.

Garcia and Marina had been swept about 40 yards (meters) downstream, and he clung to the tree for two hours as rescuers waited for the water to recede. It was frigid, he said, but a hiker gave him a towel to wrap around his daughter. 

It was while recovering in the hospital that he learned the fate of the rest of his relatives. They had all been within 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.5 meters) of one another on the hike, but somehow it was Garcia's immediate family who survived.

What are the chances that our tiny little family survived and the rest of our family didn't?" he said. "I will ask myself, `Why? Why me?"' 

Recovering from the physical and emotional effects has been difficult. 

"The first couple weeks were really hard. I had a lot of nightmares and I couldn't sleep," he said. His daughter was tormented in the early days as well, screaming, "Agua, agua!" in her sleep, which is Spanish for "water."

Immediately after the terror of that day, Garcia felt like he would never again go back to that site.

"I didn't want to go back there, but right now, I feel the need to go back there. I don't know. I just feel like it's something I need to do," he said.