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Search continues for 6-year-old Arizona girl swept away in creek waters

Posted at 9:02 PM, Dec 02, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-04 20:47:00-05

TONTO BASIN, AZ — An extended family with deep roots in the mountain communities of eastern Arizona mourned the deaths of two children swept away by floodwaters last week as dozens of people search for a 6-year-old girl who is still missing.

Nine people from the family, which founded several businesses and is active in their church, were riding in an oversized military-style truck that tried to cross an overflowing creek Friday.

It was blocked off with barricades and signs during a storm that dropped an estimated 2 inches of rain in the Tonto Basin area, about 50 miles northeast of Phoenix.

Authorities on Wednesday kept searching for 6-year-old Willa Rawlings, whose parents Daniel and Lacey Rawlings, escaped from the truck with four children. Her brother, Colby Rawlings, and cousin, Austin Rawlings, both 5, were found dead Saturday. The children were reportedly located separately about three miles downstream from the crash site.

Officials on scene said crews are searching a span of four to five miles along the creek for Willa.

Family members were able to confirm searchers have found articles of Willa's clothing, including shoes and pants are searching an area of debris where she may be located.

The family was together as part of a holiday gathering with relatives, according to the sheriff's office.

Authorities say at least 50 people are assisting in search and rescue efforts, which are ongoing. GCSO says searches will continue during sunlight, and will resume Thursday, but efforts will be limited because of expected storms overnight.

"Sheriff J. Adam Shepherd would like to thank the multiple agencies for assisting in this ongoing operation and remind everyone of the dangers that can occur during flooding. We are concerned for the safety of those involved and the first responders," a press release from the Gila County Sheriff's Office said.

Officials noted search efforts have been challenging at times due to swift moving water coming down from the mountains, as well as debris and loose rocks in the area due to the flooding.

Friends say the Rawlings family is heavily involved in their community and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Daniel Rawlings is a church leader and helps run a family contracting business. His grandparents founded the area's first movie theater, the Sho Lo Theatre in Show Low, according to old newspaper articles, and later started a drive-in theater for recreational vehicles.

The family has always been deeply involved in the community, friend David Merrill said. He said the Rawlings family volunteers in cemetery cleanups and Lacey Rawlings' family gets together each year to make and distribute clothing and toiletries to those in need.

"They're loved by thousands and thousands of people," said Merrill, one of hundreds of volunteers who helped search for Willa on Sunday.

Funeral services were planned Friday for Austin Rawlings. "Our Austin was an expressive who loved music and color. We ask those attending the service to please dress colorfully and bring your smiles," her mom, Lauren Rawlings, wrote on Facebook.

"Thank you all for your kind words, support, and prayers as we traverse through this tragedy."

The area along Tonto Creek from Punkin Center to Roosevelt Lake floods during major storms and seasonally when snowmelt flows into the reservoir. Residents have been trying for years to build a bridge at one crossing, but have not been successful.

According to friends and neighbors of a family affected by the crash, a verified GoFundMeaccount has been created for Austin. A separate GoFundMe was created for Colby and Willa.