Searching, Hoping to Find One Last Survivor of the Payson Flash Flood

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UPDATE: Crews located the remains of Hector Miguel Garnica on Wednesday afternoon. A helicopter crew flying lower to the ground found the body and contacted the Gila County sheriff's office and the Department of Public Safety to investigate further. The family has been notified.

Detective Sergeant David Hornung of Gila County met Monday with family members of the nine people who died in a flash flood here Saturday.

Some family members had traveled from out of state to catch a glimpse of where their loved ones had been when tragedy struck.

Many of them hoped to help search teams uncover the body of Hector Miguel Garnica, a 27-year-old father of three who remained unaccounted for after the flash flood swept away him and his family.

At first, Hornung deterred the family from going down by Water Wheel where the Raya Garnica family and their relatives had been using the recreational center and swimming in the East Verde River on Saturday.

He encouraged them to keep praying, but stressed that this area was still dangerous, especially with a storm looming overhead.

“A whole part of my family is gone,” one member told him.

With his own three sons on his mind, Hornung said he could feel the anguish of this family.

“Yesterday, I was looking for nine people,” Hornung said. “Today, after finding out who they were, I found out that an entire young family was wiped out. These people are in complete shock and devastation. You can’t describe how they feel.”

Hornung decided to “take the heat” for ignoring protocol. He led the family down to the river. He warned them that if the weather turned severe that they must follow him and evacuate immediately to avoid another flash flood catastrophe.

In his 13 years with the sheriff’s office, Hornung said he had never seen so many fatalities from a flash flood.

“It’s always hard, especially with children.” Hornung said. “So many of us have children.”

The nine victims ranged from ages 2 to 57, making the recovery process particularly emotional for many of the search and rescue volunteers.

The search had to be halted Monday, but will continue Tuesday and will be turned over to a Type 3 Incident team, which includes statewide rescuers. Volunteers downloaded their GPS data throughout the day and will transfer all information over to the new team.

This change of command gives the volunteers, many of whom have been working for three straight days, a rest. It also adds manpower and expertise, Hornung said.

The search will double in both volunteers and K-9 units.

“We’re running out of non-tired people,” Hornung said.

After searching for about nine hours, a dozen of the 35 responders gathered around a picnic table Monday afternoon to discuss a game plan for the next day.

They huddled behind the trailer hooked up to Sergeant Dennis Newman’s truck and sat on picnic tables with the Gila County Sheriff’s officer. The trailer had three maps printed out and taped to the side illustrating areas along the East Verde River the search team had covered.

Standing tall in his cowboy hat, Newman asked the volunteers of Tonto Rim Search and Rescue team who would be able to make it out for tomorrow’s search efforts.

“I wish I could, but I can’t,” one man in a neon orange T-shirt said behind him.

Other volunteers piped up in between bites of their sandwiches. Some would return while others would go back to their day jobs.

Tonto Rim Search and Rescue team member Dave Pirtle continued to pack the trailer with shovels, rakes, and pick axes while his dog Koda circled the volunteers in search of sandwich scraps.

The Tonto team was the first to respond on Saturday when they heard screaming from the Verde River East. The team had been in the area helping a hiker with an allergic reaction and just happened to be close by.

On Monday, two more search and rescue teams offered to help and set up camp on Houston Mesa Road. No members of any rescue team were injured during the search.

The teams approached the search from all angles — land, water, and air. With help from helicopters on Saturday and Sunday, nine bodies were recovered. On Monday, Payson resident Aaron Witte offered his drones to help.

His two drones, the DJI Phantom 4 and Mavic Pro, followed volunteers as they search upstream. Witte hooked up the Phantom to a TV screen for law enforcement to watch the drone footage in real time from the campsite.

The status remains a search and rescue and not a recovery, although the odds of survival are lower and lower every day, Hornung said.

However, the teams are holding out hope.

“I’ve seen miracles happen before and I really wish we could have one here,” he said.

Around 100 people were in the swimming hole known as Cold Springs when a rush of water from a thunderstorm upstream swept away the victims, with no warning.

The Gila County Sheriff’s Office said a 911 call was received on Saturday at approximately 3:19 p.m. for a search and rescue operation.

Many of the victims were from the same extended family, who were at the swimming hole to celebrate Maria Raya's birthday, who would have been 26 on Sunday, according to the Arizona Republic. Raya's three children, 7-year-old Daniel, 5-year-old Mia, and 3-year-old Emily, died in the flood; her husband, Hector Miguel Garnica, is still missing.

Maria's 24-year-old sister Maribel Raya and her daughter, 2-year-old Erika, were also recovered in the debris. Maribel's 19-year-old brother Javier Raya-Garnica, 13-year-old nephew Jonathan Leon, and 57-year-old mother Selia Garcia Castenada were also found dead.

On Monday afternoon, the sheriff's office reported that of the 14 people who were caught in the flood, 29-year-old Julio Garcia, 28-year-old Esthela Atondo, 8-year-old Acis Garcia, and 1-year-old Marina Garcia were rescued and survived.

There was no rain at the swimming hole on Saturday afternoon, but a thunderstorm approximately 8 miles upstream had dumped water on acreage burned during the recent Highline Fire.

With nowhere to drain, the water apparently rushed toward Ellison Creek and the East Verde River, spilling into the swimming hole and canyon. Video from Saturday showed the floodwaters filled with logs and debris.

Other videos from the scene showed a scramble to rescue people trapped on trees and branches near the rushing water. Other swimmers had raced to get out of the way moments earlier.

The Cold Springs swimming hole is near the Water Wheel campground and recreation area. Reactions on social media reflected shock and sadness as readers learned that the tragedy had occurred at a getaway spot popular for residents of Phoenix.

Until Garnica is recovered, the Water Wheel hiking trail will be closed to the public.

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