Officials: 9 dead in Payson flash flood, 1 missing

AZ Central – by Yihyun Jeong and Robert Gundran

A flash flood at a popular swimming hole north of Payson killed nine people Saturday, and left several more missing, officials said Sunday.

The Gila County Sheriff’s Office received a 911 call shortly after 3 p.m. Saturday about flooding at a swimming hole known as Cold Springs near the Water Wheel campground in the Tonto National Forest.   

Water Wheel Fire and Medical District Fire Chief Ron Sattelmaier said more than a hundred people were in the Cold Springs swimming hole Saturday afternoon when a severe thunderstorm pounded down on a nearby remote area that had been burned over by a recent wildfire.

Three bodies were recovered Saturday and six others were found Sunday. Two adults and two children rescued by helicopter Saturday were taken to Banner Payson Medical Center for hypothermia, officials say. Officials said Sunday afternoon that a 13-year-old boy is still missing.

“They were treated and released on Saturday,” he said.

The dead include four adults and five children, and authorities believe they are an extended family from Phoenix.

Officials said that at least 40 volunteers were helping scour the area.

“There’s no way of knowing how many people were actually there,” Sattelmaier said. “It’s pretty much recovery (now). We don’t believe there’s anybody left out there.”

The thunderstorm hit about 8 miles upstream along Ellison Creek, which quickly flooded the narrow canyon where the swimmers were enjoying a cool dip a on a hot summer day.

“They had no warning. They heard a roar and it was on top of them,” Sattelmaier said.

One of the first responders told the Arizona Republic that it was a “6 foot tall, 40 foot wide black wave” moving at 45 mph through a narrow canyon. It took down trees and boulders and soot and ash from the fire scar.

There had been thunderstorms throughout the area near Payson, about an hour and half’s drive from Phoenix, but it wasn’t raining where the swimmers were. During monsoon season, weather like this can strike furiously.

Jeff Jones, a hiker from Peoria, said the swimming hole is a popular destination 

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

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

One thought on “Officials: 9 dead in Payson flash flood, 1 missing

  1. Arizona is beautiful but if you take it for granted it will kill you, crazy dust storms, monsoon rains, 40+ degree temperature swings in winter, dry heat to the point you wont see the moisture leaving your body, all the fun plants/insects/reptiles/mammals that love to poke, sting and bite, all that said I love it here, I don’t even mind the heat.

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