9 dead and one missing in flash flood at Arizona swimming hole

Nine people were dead, including six children, and one man was missing after a flash flood roared through a popular Arizona swimming hole on Saturday afternoon.

The deadly incident at the Cold Springs swimming hole in Tonto National Forest followed heavy rains that had spurred thunderstorm and flash flood warnings from the National Weather Service in areas scarred by a recent wildfire.

Officials suspended their search Sunday evening but were expected to resume on Monday.

Volunteers search for missing swimmers on Sunday in the Tonto National Forest in Arizona.
(Alexis Bechman / Payson Roundup)

The Gila County Sheriff’s Office first received a 911 call about a search-and-rescue operation at the swimming hole about 3:20 p.m. Saturday, according to the department’s website.

Sheriff’s Sgt. David Hornung said Sunday that the dead were members of a family that had gathered together for the day.

“From what I understand, they were brothers and sisters and nephews and cousins. It was a big group of people out there enjoying swimming in the river and playing in the water,” he said.

The children who died ranged in age from 2 to 17 and the adults from 24 to 60, Hornung said.

The victims, he said, were probably caught without warning by the flood.

“It wasn’t even raining where these people were at,” he said. “The flash flood came from above them.”

(Angelica Quintero / @latimesgraphics)

Relatives told the Arizona Republic newspaper that the victims were members of a Phoenix family that had gone to the swimming hole to celebrate a birthday. The newspaper said the dead included two mothers and their children, a grandmother and two teenage boys. The husband of one of the women who died was still missing, the paper reported.

The weather service issued a flash flood warning Saturday afternoon, but the area is fairly remote, Hornung said.

“The people who were down there probably didn’t have cellphone service. There was no real way to warn them about the possibility of a flash flood,” he said.

A total of 14 people were initially reported missing, but four of them were rescued within about an hour of the incident, Hornung said.

The rescue was helped by the fact that a search-and-rescue team had been deployed nearby to help a hiker who had suffered an allergic reaction.

“When they were finishing that up, they heard people yelling for help, and they went down to the river and found them,” Hornung said. “Had they not been there, it probably would have been an hour before any search-and-rescue got there.”

Floodwaters in the Tonto National Forest.
(Jack Lloyd)

The swimming hole is popular with tourists and locals, a place where families often gather to escape the heat, said Chris Fabri of Phoenix, who maintains a website about Arizona’s swimming holes and has been visiting Cold Springs for more than two decades. The swimming hole is north of Payson, Ariz.

A video shot by a witness, Disa Alexander, shortly after the flood and posted by various news outlets showed a man in a tree holding a baby as water rushed around him.

Local news site Payson Roundup said rescue workers had saved a father clutching a child on Saturday.

LisaMarie Zamora of Payson was hiking with her husband in the national forest late Saturday afternoon when the couple noticed water coming down the road.

“We saw debris in the water and then all of a sudden it was like someone released a dam,” she told the Los Angeles Times by phone. “It just engulfed the whole road we were on.… There were sandals, bottles, food, all of it going downriver.”

Rescuers in the Tonto National Forest.
(Jack Lloyd)

Zamora said that although Cold Springs is popular with families, it is surrounded by slick rock and has always seemed somewhat treacherous to her.

“Even without the flooding, it’s kind of dangerous. With the flooding, you can’t stop the water from pulling you down or downriver,” she said.

Fabri said the swimming hole has long been a treasured place to get away.

“The water is so cold that when its 100-something degrees out in Phoenix, and you drive out there for a day trip … it’s just refreshing,” he said. “It’s nice to get up there. You’re in a very primitive, prehistoric looking area with all the granite. It’s just gorgeous.”

Fabri said he visited the area with his young daughter.

“I’m sure I’ve been up there during monsoon season,” he said. “You just don’t think about that. That’s the unfortunate thing. People need to think about it.”

The creek under the First Crossing Bridge on Sunday afternoon
(Alexis Bechman / Payson Roundup)

The National Weather Service on Saturday issued a flash flood warning for Gila County at 2:12 p.m. That report noted that rain was continuing to fall over an area near the canyon, which had been scarred in the Highline fire that burned about 7,000 acres in June.

The report said flash flooding was likely “within creeks and washes draining from the Highline scar.”

At 3:09 p.m., about 10 minutes before authorities were called about the flooding, the weather service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Gila and Yavapai counties.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey offered his condolences on Twitter on Sunday to the relatives of those killed.

“Deepest prayers for those lost in the Gila County tragedy, for their families and the entire community,” he wrote.


9:17 p.m.: This article was updated with staff reporting throughout.

6:50 p.m.: This article was updated with a death toll of nine, comments from a county sheriff’s detective and more background information about the flooding.

3:40 p.m.: This article was updated to report that eight people died.

3 p.m.: This article was updated to report that seven people died and to include comments from an eyewitness and a meteorologist.

This article was originally published at 1:05 p.m.