9 dead, up to 14 victims in flash flood at swimming hole near Payson

Gila County Sheriff's Office began the search and rescue operation around 3:30 p.m. Saturday after heavy rainfall hit the Payson area.

PAYSON, Ariz.- Authorities said nine people have been found dead and a 27-year-old father is still missing after a flash flood rushed through Cold Springs swimming hole along the East Verde River north of Payson Saturday. 

Gila County Sheriff's Office said 14 people are victims to the flash flood. Crews recovered a body of a 2-year-old Sunday afternoon. Among the other nine confirmed deaths are 3-year-old and 5-year-old girls, two 7-year-old boys and a 13-year-old boy. 

A 24-year-old woman, a 27-year-old woman and a 60-year-old woman are also dead, GSCO said.

A sheriff's detective told the Associated Press that all of the victims were among a group of 14 family and friends from the Phoenix and Flagstaff areas who had met up for a daytrip along the popular swimming hole. 

A teen who witnessed the flash flood spoke with 12 News about what she saw.

Nancy Coto, 17, from Pinetop-Lakeside, was visiting Cold Creek for the first time with her boyfriend and his family Saturday afternoon. 

"We were just there to have a good time, and the next thing you know, all you see is this big flash flood," she said. "Water flying everywhere."

In a matter of minutes, Coto saw waves of rushing flood waters rushing through the creek along the trail.

"It was just a panic moment after we see the water coming down," she said.

That's when she started recording cell phone video.

"I saw this lady in a tree, and that's like the first thing I saw," Coto said. "All I hear next is, 'Oh, there's a dad in another tree with a child in his hands. It was just upsetting."

Nancy's boyfriend and his dad tried to get to them.

"There was just too big of a gap," she said.

A helicopter eventually plucked them from the river. When Nancy tried to find a way out, it got worse.

"The entrance that we came from, that was just covered in water and we couldn't get out," she said.

They ended up trapped in the area for more than four hours. During that time, she said she saw rescuers carrying a body bag along the trail.

"That was heartbreaking, because I never thought that somene's life was taken," Coto said. 

Coto said she's sending prayers to all the family and friends of the victims.

GCSO began the search and rescue operation around 3:30 p.m. Saturday after heavy rainfall hit the Payson area, causing a flash flood at the Cold Springs Swimming Hole and Forest Service Road 420.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety, U.S. Forest Service and Whispering Pines Fire District have joined The GCSO in the search and rescue operation.

Crews suspended the search for the missing person Sunday night. They said they will resume the search Monday morning.

There are closures in place at First Crossing and Second Crossing on Houston Mesa Road, according to GCSO. Water Wheel campground are closed. 

Several parts of Arizona are under a flash flood watch Sunday afternoon through Monday night.

© 2017 KPNX-TV


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