Witness tells of horror as 3 swept over fall in Yosemite
The water at Yosemite National Park may be beautiful as it tumbles and roars out of the mountains, crystal snowmelt in a granite bed. But Jake Bibee remembers what he told his friend: “You have to respect the water.”
Bibee, a 28-year-old carpenter who grew up in Angels Camp, northwest of the park, had brought Amanda Lee, a visitor from Missouri, to the top of Vernal Fall on Tuesday -- her first visit to Yosemite, but the latest of many for him.
They were standing behind a metal barricade, peering at the cascade. It is one of the most popular and beloved sites in the park.
It can also be deadly.
Bibee saw a man cross over the barricade. He was leaning over the 317-foot waterfall, holding a young girl, who was screaming in terror. People begged them to get back. “I’m yelling at him, ‘You SOB, get over here!’ ” Bibee said. Eventually, the two returned to safety.
But then Bibee noticed that three other people had also crossed over, and were “taking pictures and being stupid.”
And then, as he watched in horror, one of them, a young woman, slipped. In an instant, she was sliding away, carried toward the precipice as onlookers screamed.
“The woman goes first,” Bibee said. “Then the older gentleman at that point falls in. I’m watching the two of them being swept away. I’m starting to jet for the edge. It’s just instinct. But Amanda says, ‘No, no, don’t go!’ Then there was another guy I hadn’t seen. I didn’t see him fall in.
“But he looks back, just as he’s being swept over the edge. I knew then they were not going to make it. They’re going over the waterfall.”
The three were members of a group of 12 from a Central Valley church group that had hiked to the top of the waterfall, said Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman.
Ignoring posted signs and repeated warnings, they had climbed over the metal-bar barricade to get in the Merced River about 25 feet from the edge of the falls.
As Gediman recounted what happened, it was a chain reaction. First one person was swept away, then a second one tried to rescue that person and then a third tried to save the other two. All three were swept over the waterfall.
They were identified as Ramina Badal, 21, of Manteca; Homiz David, 22, of Modesto; and Ninos Yacoub, 27, of Turlock.
Witnesses immediately called rangers, and search-and-rescue teams canvassed the waters downstream Tuesday. They were back out at first light Wednesday to continue the search, but by late morning park officials said they believed the three were dead.
The accident brings the total number of water-related deaths in Yosemite this year to six, park officials said. Two hikers drowned in the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir on June 29, and a hiker slipped and fell into the Merced River on the Mist Trail on May 13.
Twelve people have gone over Vernal Fall in the past, park officials said. None survived.
Gediman said rangers were collecting statements and photographs from witnesses to try to piece together what happened, but “none of this will bring these people back.”
The Mist Trail leading to Vernal Fall is one of the park’s most popular, Gediman said, and about 1,500 make the trek to the top of the waterfall each day without incident. He insisted that the park provides sufficient warnings of the dangers, and that the spot is safe if visitors follow the rules. He said the guardrail took “some effort” to climb over.
The trail was closed Tuesday after the accident, and reopened Wednesday.
The three victims were members of a close-knit community of Orthodox Christians in the Central Valley with roots in the Middle East.
Father Nenos Michael, an Assyrian priest in San Francisco, told the Modesto Bee that Badal was a nursing student at the University of San Francisco and Yacoub was a chemistry student at Cal State Stanislaus.
The Bee quoted another priest, Father Genard Lazar of Ceres, as saying he was with the group at Yosemite but did not see the three go in.
“All I heard was screaming and I turned around and looked up and [David and Badal] were being taken by the water over the waterfall,” he said.
Jennifer Yacoub, the sister-in-law of Yacoub, said the devout family was gathered together in prayer Wednesday in Turlock. “He’s a wonderful guy, loving, supportive of his family, very faithful and extremely helpful,” she said of her brother-in-law.
“All we’re asking for is for people to pray ... the power of prayer, the power of prayer,” she said, her voice exhausted.
Nineveh Paulus, David’s aunt, said her nephew -- who went by his first name, Ninos -- loved to play music and write, was very loyal to his friends and family, and dedicated to his faith. His Facebook page said he was from Baghdad.
“He was a very, very religious, very Christian man. He had a lot of faith, was very positive, very outgoing and just a beautiful soul,” she said. “He’s a good spirit, and God will take care of him.”
Paulus said David was in Yosemite with the St. George Assyrian Church of the East in Ceres.
A message posted on the church’s Facebook page Wednesday morning confirmed the three victims were members of the church.
“Please pray for our dear youth who were lost today at Yosemite,” the message read. “Mar Zaia Cathedral will be open on Wednesday morning @ 10 am for prayer and candle-lighting. Family member, friends, fellow parishioners and all well-wishers are welcome.”
Sweeny Lelham, who puts together radio programs for the Assyrian American Club of Turlock, said the Assyrian community was gathering Wednesday at local churches in Modesto and Ceres to pray for the community members swept over the falls and for their families.
“It’s a very devastating time for the whole Assyrian community here,” she said. “We’re hoping and praying that they will be brought home safely.”
Lelham described the San Joaquin Valley’s Assyrian community as very tight knit.
“We are a very cultural and religious people. For us it’s very devastating to lose three young people.”
Park Ranger Kari Cobb said the three people who went over the falls had been seen earlier swimming about 25 feet upstream. She said it’s not uncommon for people to swim in the Emerald Pool about 75 feet above Vernal Fall, although signs are posted warning people against it.
“Take a step back: You are above a waterfall,” Cobb said.
Water is integral to Yosemite’s beauty. In its frozen and liquid form, it carved the park’s distinctive features, and on a spring or summer day, few sights are more inspiring than the park’s rushing rivers, creeks and waterfalls. But they are deceptively treacherous, especially in wet years like this one.
“The water’s high, and it’s swift and it’s cold,” Cobb said. “Yosemite is a very wild place. People come and they’re out of their element.”