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At Least 9 Killed After Flash Flood Sweeps Through Arizona's Tonto National Forest

Jul 17, 2017
Originally published on July 17, 2017 10:30 pm
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At least nine people are dead after a flash flood at a popular swimming spot in Arizona over the weekend. Reporter Stina Sieg of member station KJZZ joins us from Payson, Ariz., near where this happened. And can you start by helping us understand just what happened on Saturday afternoon?

STINA SIEG, BYLINE: So around 3 p.m., there were about a hundred people at the swimming hole in the Tonto National Forest, and that's just when this wave of black floodwater hit. It was about 40 feet wide and about 6 feet tall, and it was filled with all this debris from a previous wildfire. David Horning is with the Gila County Sheriff's Office. He says 14 people were swept into the water, and they were all from the same family gathering. Five children died, including one as young as 2 years old.


DAVID HORNING: That whole family group is in shock. It was something that they couldn't outrun. That water was probably coming down that river about 35 miles an hour.

CORNISH: Stina Sieg, was there any kind of advanced warning in terms of rain or even just flash flood warnings issued by authorities?

SIEG: Well, there actually were flash flood warnings that had been issued. But those had been issued via radio and web and cellphone, and that recreation area has very little connectivity. So at the time, I mean it wasn't even raining at the swimming hole, so it's likely that it took them completely by surprise.

CORNISH: Can you tell us more about the rescue effort? There were some people who were successfully saved, right?

SIEG: Yeah, there were, and it happened really quickly. You know, not everyone was in the water, and of the 14 people that were, four were able to be saved almost right away because at the time, there was a search and rescue team that happened to already be in the area. They were on this unrelated call, helping a hiker in distress. And you know, since this was a very remote place, it's lucky that they were just able to spring into action.

CORNISH: How is this tragedy affecting that rescue personnel I mean especially when you talk about a whole family being lost?

SIEG: Yeah, it's been really hard. You know, yesterday one of the rescue crew actually had to leave the scene. He was part of the sheriff's department. And he saw someone's feet sticking out of some debris, and he couldn't handle it. He actually had to leave. And you know, people are resolved to keep going, but there's definitely sadness.

CORNISH: Now, flash floods aren't uncommon in this part of Arizona, but are there any precautions authorities are going to be taking going forward, especially for people who are heading to these swimming areas?

SIEG: Yeah, I mean flash floods do happen often here, and monsoon rains are forecast during this week and beyond. And they say that you should be careful especially when you're in one of those low-lying areas like where that swimming hole was because these floods - they could happen at any time with very little warning. So they say you should know the forecast and if you can, you know, monitor media channels and the emergency alert systems to know if a flood is coming. And you know, given what happened this weekend, just make sure you're able to receive those alerts.

CORNISH: That's Stina Sieg of member station KJZZ. She spoke to us from Payson, Ariz. Thanks so much.

SIEG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.