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9 Killed In Arizona Flash Flood Were At Family Gathering

payson stream
(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
On July 15, this stream near Payson, Arizona, was 40 feet wide as flood waters swept through.

Nine people are dead and one is still missing after a flash flood swept 14 people away from a popular swimming hole outside of Payson. The search continues for a 27-year-old man who’s been missing since Saturday. 

The victims range in age from 2 to 57, and they were all at a family gathering Saturday afternoon when they were hit by a wall of black water, filled with ash and debris from a recent fire.

Authorities have identified the five children and four adults who died when the flood struck a popular swimming hole:

Selia Garcia Castaneda, 57
Danial Garnica, 7
Emily Garnica, 3
Mia Garnica, 5
Jonathan Leon, 13
Erica Raya-Garcia, 2
Javier Raya-Garcia, 19
Maria Raya-Garcia, 27
Maribel Raya-Garcia, 24

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Sgt. Detective David Hornung, with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, said people had no warning, as the floodwater originated a few miles upstream, where it had rained heavily in an area recently burned by a wildfire.

"So there were tree limbs and stumps and sticks, and the water was black with the soot and the ash of the fire," Hornung said.

Hornung estimates the flood was rushing at 35 miles an hour and was impossible to outrun. Four were rescued, including a baby. He said, luckily, a search and rescue team was already in the area helping a hiker in distress.

"Had they had not been there, there would have been a real delay in getting assistance out here. It would have been at least 45 minutes to an hour before assistance would have got here," he said.

Hornung has been Gila County Sheriff’s Office more than a decade, and he said he’s never seen a flash-flood tragedy on this scale.

"Recovering children is probably one of the hardest things to do. And you don’t see a lot of the emotion come out of us here. It’s later that we have our moments," he said.

Officials here are urging people to be careful, especially in low-lying areas, as more monsoon rains are in the forecast this week.

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When senior field correspondent Stina Sieg was 22, she moved to the desert. She hasn’t been the same since. At the time, the Northern California native had just graduated from college and was hankering for wide-open spaces. So she took a leap and wrote to nearly every newspaper in New Mexico until one offered her a job. That’s how she became the photographer for a daily paper in the small town of Silver City. And that’s when she realized how much she loved storytelling. In the years since, the beauty of having people open up and share their stories — and trust her to tell them — has never gotten old to Sieg. Before coming to KJZZ, Sieg was also a writer and photographer at newspapers in Glenwood Springs, Colorado; Moab, Utah; and the Smoky Mountains town of Waynesville, North Carolina. She always had her hand in public radio, too, including hosting Morning Edition on a fill-in basis at WNCW in North Carolina. It’s still the best music station she’s found. When she’s not reporting, chances are Sieg is running, baking, knitting or driving to some far-flung town deep in the desert — just to see what it looks like.