Search intensifies for man swept away in violent flash flood

TONTO NATIONAL FOREST (AP) – The search for a man who was swept away in a flash flood that killed nine others at a swimming hole in central Arizona intensified Tuesday as crews with dogs and a drone combed through huge clumps of muddy tree branches and other debris along a 2-mile stream bed.

Crews were facing difficult conditions in their search at the Tonto National Forest, where the stream bed was coated with thick mud and searchers made slow progress in past days trying to move through muck up to their knees. The debris is up to 6 feet deep in some spots.

The searchers are trying to find 27-year-old Hector Miguel Garnica, whose wife, three young children and other extended family members were killed Saturday after a torrent of water from a thunderstorm upstream roared through the area. His family gathered at the mountain swimming hole about 100 miles northeast of Phoenix to celebrate his wife's birthday.

The violent surge of water sent tree trunks and limbs tumbling down the waterway. Five of the dead were children. Five other people were rescued, some of them after clinging desperately to trees until they were pulled from the water by rescuers.

The storm dumped up to 1.5 inches of rain in an hour, prompting a flash flood warning from the National Weather Service. Though the service sent out a flash-flood warning over cellphone networks, service in the remote area is patchy at best. Unless they had a weather radio, the swimmers would have been unaware.

A crew of 40 volunteers who became exhausted after days of searching was replaced by 75 forestry workers, law enforcement officers and others.

Initially, the searchers focused on the stream banks, but later started to sift through muddy tree branches and other debris. Forestry crews also used saws to cut up wood debris to provide access for other searchers.

A flash flood watch was issued Tuesday for northern Arizona, including the area that's being searched.

Cougan Carothers, the search team's operations chief, said crews would be pulled out if weather conditions posed a flood risk. "We don't want to put anybody in harm's way," Carothers said. "No one should be risking a whole lot being down in that creek bed today."

The deaths have raised questions about whether the government should have done more to warn the public on the dangers of flash flooding in wilderness areas.

Officials have said people headed to such areas should check weather alerts ahead of time to determine whether it's safe. They note that it's hard to predict where rain will fall in the desert Southwest, and people should know that heavy downpours can cause flash flooding.

There is no system currently in place to specifically warn people about the potential dangers of flash floods at the Tonto National Forest, said Forest Service spokeswoman Carrie Templin.

"If our employees happen to be out in the forest at the time, and they hear a weather warning, they share that with members of the public they may cross," she said.