Water Wheel tragedy | Gila County

Floodwaters rushing off slopes denuded by the Highline Fire killed 10 people on Saturday as water loaded with logs and debris rampaged down Ellison Creek and into the East Verde. Those killed were members of a Valley family celebrating a birthday with a dip in a creek that draws hundreds of swimmers every weekend.

The normally docile stream turned into a murderous chaos of black water, logs and debris. By the time the flood subsided, it left debris in branches of trees on shore six feet above even the swollen river level.

The fatal flood echoed the lethal flood that followed the Schultz Fire in Flagstaff, which killed one girl, and underscored the long-term impacts of wildfires that burn so hot they sear the soil and dramatically increase erosion in the tangled, overgrown forest.

The National Weather Service issued flash flood warnings for Saturday, Sunday and Monday in the region.

The debris-laden floodwaters carried more than a dozen people downstream, all friends and family members gathered to celebrate the birthday of a woman whose entire family was consumed by the flood.

Heroic efforts by rescuers aided by a Department of Public Service helicopter saved four. Rescue team members and volunteers spent most of Sunday pacing the creek with walking sticks and dogs to locate 10 others who had gone missing, with renewed flash flood warnings in place.

By nightfall Sunday, nine bodies had been found, but a 27-year-old man was still missing.

The Gila County Sheriff’s Office reported the victims include: Maria Raya-Garcia, 27, was among them along with her three children, Emily Garnica, 3; Mia Garnica, 5; and Daniel Garnica, 7. Her husband, Hector Miguel Garnica, 27, was still missing. Other victims include Maria’s sister Maribel Raya-Garcia, 24; her daughter, Erika Raya-Garcia, 2; Maribel’s brother, Javier Raya-Garcia, 19; Selia Garcia Castaneda, 57, the mother of Maria, Maribel and Javier; and Jonathan Leon, 13, Celia Garcia’s grandson.

Four other family members survived: Julio Garcia, 29; Esthela Atondo, 28; Acis Garcia, 8; and Marina Garcia, 1.

Searchers were back out at 6 a.m. Monday looking for Garnica’s body.

The GCSO and medical personnel were called to Water Wheel around 12:30 p.m. Saturday for a Girl Scout that had suffered an allergic reaction. Rescuers had to carry the child out on a litter, which took several hours.

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