Arizona flash flood kills 9 family members who were celebrating birthday

An Arizona family that went to a popular swimming hole on Saturday to celebrate a birthday was swept up by flash floods that killed nine of them, including several children.

The family, from Phoenix, went to Cold Springs in Tonto National Forest on a sweltering afternoon to celebrate Maria Raya’s birthday, according to the Arizona Republic. Fourteen family members were at the celebration, including Raya’s three children and her husband, as well as extended members of the family.

Suddenly, a nearby flash flood brought water surging into the area where the family and about 100 others were swimming. One eyewitness described it to the Republic as a “six-foot tall, 40-foot wide black wave” that seemed to come out of nowhere.

Arizona floods: What we know so far

"They had no warning. They heard a roar and it was on top of them," Water Wheel Fire Chief Ron Sattelmaier told the newspaper.

Among the dead are Raya, 27, and her children – Emily, 3, Mia, 5 and Danial, 7, and five of her family members, Jonathan Leon, 13. Selia Garcia Castaneda, 57, Erica Raya-Garcia, 2 and Maribel Raya-Garcia. Her husband, Hector Garnica, 27, is still missing.

GoFundMe page set up for the family has raised more than $14,000 as of early Monday afternoon.

“This is to help Hector and Maria Garnica and [their] 3 kids [and] family members cover the cost of burying all 5 of them after the sudden tragedy in Payson that happened yesterday!” the page says, “they still haven't found Hectors body yet and we just want him to be with his family!!” 

At least four other members of the family were taken to the hospital. Authorities said it was at least three generations that had come together for a celebration that suddenly turned tragic.

"It was an extended family — brothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, a grandmother," said Detective David Hornung of the Gila County Sheriff's Office.

Mandisa Alexander, who was heading toward the swimming hole to celebrate her birthday, said the water was pushing trees and rising fast. She said she saw a man stuck in a branch holding his toddler daughter. She said she tried to rescue the father and daughter as water surrounded them, but she fell back and couldn’t reach them.


“Eventually the helicopter came and took a couple of people out. We were able to communicate from up top, we were able to communicate with the guy that was down below and he was saying he was with, like, 10 other people,” she told reporters.

The National Weather Service estimated up to 1.5 inches of rain fell over the area in an hour. The thunderstorm hit about 8 miles upstream along Ellison Creek, which quickly flooded the narrow canyon where the swimmers were.

Hornung noted that the National Weather Service had issued a flash flood warning about 1 1/2 hours before, "but unless they had a weather radio out there, they wouldn't have known about it. There is no cellphone service out here."

While Arizona is known for its dryness, it gets bursts of heavy rains during the summer monsoon season. The severe thunderstorm was located in a remote area that had been burned by a recent wildfire, Sattelmaier said. The "burn scar" was one of the reasons the weather service issued the flash-flood warning.

"If it's an intense burn, it creates a glaze on the surface that just repels water," said Darren McCollum, a meteorologist

Crowds looking to beat the Phoenix metro area's heat often head to the small creeks that flow out of the mountains forming swimming holes and a series of small waterfalls. But officials warn that visitors need to be aware of the dangers of a flash flood.

"I wish there was a way from keeping people from getting in there during monsoon season, " Sattelmaier said "It happens every year. We've just been lucky something like this hasn't been this tragic."

Fox News' Kelly Burke and The Associated Press contributed to this report.