Flash Flood Traps Three At Natural Bridge


Three hikers had to scale the walls of Pine Creek Canyon to get out of the way of a roaring flash flood Monday afternoon at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.

The hikers, a woman from Mesa and her parents from Michigan, were hiking the Pine Creek Trail at the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park when they heard a wall of water coming that turned the meandering creek into a raging torrent, 25 feet higher than normal.

"It was one of the fiercest flash floods I have seen," said park ranger Steve Soroka. He was just returning from Payson when the flash flood hit.

Ranger Irene Cistaro was keeping visitors off the trails while Ranger Mike Hopper was checking for those who were already on the trails.

"Mike had cleared the trails, trying to account for everybody," Soroka said. "Once we thought we had everybody out we were sweeping the place. Two of us had checked Viewpoint #2 twice and had not seen them. They finally climbed up a little higher and we were able to wave to them, (but) we couldn't communicate."

The trio had climbed to a ledge just below Viewpoint #1 on the north side of the bridge and the east side of the canyon wall. Stranded but not injured, they hung out and videotaped their own rescue, Soroka said.

Park Manager John Boeck, choosing to hike the edge of the canyon walls, reached the hikers first.

By then, Soroka had grabbed the park's rope equipment and called for a rope team from the Pine-Strawberry Fire Department to aid in the rescue of the visitors.

Reports were that Pine had received anywhere from 3 to 5 inches of rain in less than two hours upstream.

Just after 3:30 p.m., Soroka rappelled down to the stranded trio.

Capt. Harris Scott of the Pine-Strawberry Fire Department said that he and Soroka were concerned that the water would continue to rise. They opted to lift the stranded party out by rope.

"The rain had stopped, but it was pretty impressive water - there was so much of it," Scott said. He estimated the hikers were about 35 feet above the creek bed.

P-S rope team member Mike Brandt rappelled to the ledge with life jackets and the gear needed to lift the three out, Scott said. As a crowd of onlookers grew at Viewpoint #2, the four-person rescue crew on top took about an hour to bring up first the mother and then the daughter.

"I asked both the ladies -- they said they enjoyed the ride up," Soroka said. "It was good to have two rangers familiar with the area there to keep them calm."

After the second woman was lifted out, Soroka and Boeck decided the water had receded enough to attempt to hike out with the third victim. They crossed at a low point, wading in water 2 1/2 feet deep and scaling cliffs to get out of the narrow canyon.

"I'm glad we didn't take everybody that way. It was pretty tricky," Soroka said.

The Pine-Strawberry rehab team greeted the cold and weary victims and rescuers at the top. "They had hot food, cold drinks and peaches," Scott said.

"It was good food, too," Soroka added.

The three hikers, whose full names officials did not have, suffered no injuries.

"They had never experienced a flash flood and had no climbing experience," Scott said. "They were very trusting, very calm and did very well."

"We'd like them to come back and visit the park on a dry day," Soroka said.

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