A helicopter rescued hikers clinging to tree branches and perched on boulders as a flash flood tore through a normally quiet creek in Arizona, where unpredictable summer storms can rapidly wash churning torrents into canyons and trap those looking to take advantage of cooler weather after the rain.
Seventeen hikers, including a young child, were stranded Sunday in a scenic canyon on the outskirts of Tucson, just over a week after floodwaters killed 10 members of an extended family more than 140 miles to the north.
In southern Arizona, two final hikers were lifted to safety Monday morning from Tanque Verde Falls after they spent the night stuck on the side of a cliff in a rocky, narrow canyon, authorities said.
One woman suffered minor leg injuries that did not require medical attention, officials said.
Brian Boll, incident commander from the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, choked up recounting the rescue.
“When you see a 4-year-old on his dad’s back and you can’t get to them, it’s tough,” Boll said.
The rescue was a reminder of the dangers of flash flooding during Arizona’s monsoon, a weather phenomenon that brings powerful and unpredictable storms each summer with bursts of heavy rain that can quickly overwhelm usually calm waterways.
When rains ease triple-digit summer temperatures, people often go hiking, but that’s when the danger of flash flooding has skyrocketed, authorities said. On July 15, a large family celebrating a birthday at a swimming hole in central Arizona was swept away by a wall of water that cascaded down a canyon without warning after a storm.
After those deaths, rescuers considered the hikers who survived Sunday very lucky. Erick Maldonado, who supervises the sheriff’s search-and-rescue unit, said he understands families come to outdoor swimming spots to cool off, but it has to be done responsibly.
“There were generations of a family that were literally swept away, and that easily could’ve happened yesterday,” he said. “I can’t stress that enough.”
A police helicopter lowered a rescuer to eight hikers, including the 4-year-old boy, fastening them to a hoist that hauled them to waiting rescuers on the side of the mountain creek.
Three were plucked from the creek as they clung to tree branches with water up to their waists, said Shelley Littin of the Southern Arizona Rescue Association who helped in the effort. Others scrambled to safety on rock ledges, climbing as high as they could.
“They were standing on top of what was now a raging rapid,” she said.
The creek normally has just a trickle of water, allowing people to play in shallow pools, but Littin said the water level jumped about tenfold in five minutes and was at least 6 to 8 feet deep.
“We were extremely lucky not to lose anyone,” she said.
Rescuers helped seven hikers in a less dangerous area walk to safety by Sunday night. Crews dropped food, water and blankets to the two remaining hikers stuck on a ledge before they could be rescued Monday morning.
Littin and another volunteer rescuer spent in the canyon to ensure the pair were safe.
Milt Kennedy, who piloted the rescue helicopter, said he was frustrated he couldn’t get everyone out Sunday night but couldn’t risk the copter blades hitting the canyon walls in the dark.
Multiple hiking sites warn that Tanque Verde Falls is one of southern Arizona’s most dangerous hiking locations. A flash flood that swept through the area in July 1981 claimed eight lives.
Tanque Verde Falls is a series of multiple waterfalls, none taller than 100 feet. Visitors often swim and picnic after a short hike to the lower falls, but the trail to the main falls is longer and more strenuous. The narrow canyon, about 350 feet deep, is littered with sharp rocks and cactuses.
The National Weather Service had issued a flash flood watch for a wide swath of southern Arizona on Sunday, and Tanque Verde Falls was within that area, said Gary Zell, a meteorologist in Tucson.
People going into mountains or other flood-prone spots should know the conditions before heading off, he said.
“They’re not good places to be when there’s a risk of thunder, lightning and heavy rain,” Zell said.
The sheriff’s department said people often decide to go hiking once it stops raining, not realizing that the water they see in the creek is from much earlier rainfall, not the storm that just ended.
“What’s coming is a lot more fierce,” said Deputy Cody Gress, a sheriff’s spokesman.
A funeral mass is planned Tuesday for those who died in the earlier flash flood, including a couple and their three young children as well as the woman’s mother and sister.