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Payson flash flooding deaths: 9 confirmed dead, 2 still missing

Posted at 8:11 AM, Jul 16, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-17 15:08:54-04

Nine people are dead are two people are still missing following flash flooding at the Cold Springs Swimming Hole, north of Payson, according to the Gila County Sheriff's Office.

Meteorologists had issued a Flash Flood Warning surrounding a popular swimming area inside the Tonto National Forest before the water gushed into the narrow canyon.

MAP: Flash flooding search and rescue efforts

Deputies say just before 3:30 p.m. on Saturday they received a 911 call regarding a search and rescue operation around the swimming hole for missing individuals. 

More than 100 people were at the river swimming on Saturday afternoon when a flash flood came from above them, according to officials. Some people were washed several miles downstream during the incident.

Video shot by witness Disa Alexander shortly after the flood showed a man in a tree holding his baby as water rushed around him. His wife was a short ways away from him, also clinging to a tree.

Five bodies were recovered on Sunday, the other four were recovered on Saturday, GCSO said. 

Gila County Sheriff J. Adam Shepherd said crews are continuing to search for others who are still missing at Tonto National Forest. 

Deputies, along with Tonto Rim Search and Rescue, the Whispering Pines Fire Department, the U.S. Forest Service and the Arizona Department of Public Safety were able to rescue four people and they were transported to the hospital with hypothermia.

"There's no way of knowing how many people were actually there," Medical District Fire chief Ron 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 on a hot summer day.

According to GCSO, the victims range in age from 24-months to in their 60s.

Governor Doug Ducey took to Twitter Sunday afternoon to offer his condolences to the families affected by the tragic incident.

Just spoke w/ Sheriff Shepherd. In addition to @Arizona_DPSproviding full air support, the state will assist in all ways possible. …

The area sustained heavy rain throughout the region causing flash flooding on Saturday. The weather service estimates that up to 1.5 inches of rain fell over the area over an hour, and that the drainage took at least 30 minutes to reach the swimming hole. 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, with highs in the 80s.

More rain is possible in the area on Sunday. Latest weather conditions can be found here.

 "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.

A Flash Flood Watch is in effect for the southeastern part of the state from Sunday afternoon through Monday evening, the National Weather Service says.

The flooding came after a severe thunderstorm pounded down on a nearby remote area that had been burned by a recent wildfire, Sattelmaier said.