Newcomers to Arizona are often naive about the power of water to bring disaster to our normally dry land. For example, this Saturday marks the 32nd anniversary of the great Labor Day Flood, when the lives of some were lost because they could not believe what was happening.
Twenty-eight people died in the Rim country that weekend, when huge storms pummeled the already saturated ground. At one station, the measure was 11.4 inches of rain. Water can move weight to the 10th power of its speed, a force that is hard to comprehend. Entire trees become like matchsticks before the sweep of a flood; boulders immovable by human hands roll like a juggernaut to crush everything before them.
An unusual series of events led up to it. A tropical storm in the Pacific off Baja California set off a flow of moist tropical air into the desert southwest. Then on the morning of Sept. 5, 1970, a cold front moved in from Utah, and the devastating downpour began.
The thundering of rocks rolling down the rivers sounded through the forest. Huge trees were carried like battering rams, knocking out bridges and widening the creek banks. Fish habitats below the Rim were destroyed. Boulders and water with velocities of 10,000 cubic feet per second scoured streambeds.
The water ran 20 feet deep at Kohl's Ranch under Highway 260. The bridge over Sycamore Creek on Highway 87 was washed out and a DPS officer drove to his death not knowing the flood had left the abyss before him. The crossings on the Houston Mesa Road were wiped out. The river walk and railroad trestle in Beaver Valley were demolished.
Most of the human victims had been vacationing along Christopher and Tonto creeks, where the water rose to an all-time high. Entire houses were washed out, slamming into one another as they were carried downstream. At the community of Tonto Creek Estates, Col. Day and Mina Campbell were snug in their cabin named "Camelot," situated 10 feet above the creek. Neighbors had gathered on their front porch to watch the creek rise. Col. Campbell kept saying, "It will be all right; it will go down soon. It never got this high before."
At 4:30 p.m. that day, some of the neighbors, the Garretsons, asked to be taken back to their house, higher up. They tried to get the Campbells to come up to the higher ground to spend the night but the Campbells declined. Day Campbell took them home in the car, but as they left the water was already running ankle deep across the Campbells' yard. Within two minutes after they left the water began coming across the front porch. Another neighbor begged Mina to leave but she remained on the phone calling for help from the nearby Baptist Camp. Mina and the neighbor grabbed rakes and tried to push the debris off the porch, but their action proved impossible.
A bridge upstream from the Campbells began to capture trees, forming a dam. More large trees were falling into the creek from the washout on both sides and began piling up like jackstraws.
Suddenly a wall of water crashed into the logjam and destroyed the bridge, sending an irrepressible wall of water and logs toward the Campbells' house.
One of those visiting the Campbells told what happened next.
"I ran to get Mina at the phone a few steps inside, but she wouldn't come out. She was still calling for help. Helen Cromwell and I went for higher ground, and upon reaching the base of the hill looked back to see the road below fill with water. The front porch roof was torn off as we looked, the front wall of the house went next, and as the wires were torn down sparks went in all directions."
Mina's husband was trying to return from taking his guests home, but his car became stuck.
"I waded over to him to tell him Mina needed him. He ran down the path exclaiming as he went, 'It's all right. It never did this before.' In the meantime the house had collapsed and Mina was in the creek."
Someone grabbed Mina's hand and tried to get her to put her knee on a log, but the log rolled and broke his handhold. Her husband Day dove into the creek to her, but they both went down. Trees were bearing down on the little cluster of rescuers that included a group that had arrived from the Baptist Camp. They were forced to retreat but continued looking for the Campbells. No trace of them was to be found.
Moris and Beverly Rhoades with their three grade school children had been camping near the Tonto Fish Hatchery and were swept away. All that was found of their VW camper was the frame and wheels up in a pine tree. The father's body was recovered near Kohl's Ranch; the remains of Eric, 8, were found near Roosevelt Lake. Tara, 9, was never found. Tasha, 11, and her mother, Beverly, were misidentified as the Kyle McDonald family until 10 days later when the bodies of the McDonalds were found. Some of the lost were never found.
Labor Day never would be the happy holiday for the loved ones of those families.
Massive floods struck again three times within a 20-month period in the late 1970s. We might be grateful in some ways for the years of drought we have experienced of late. But the lessons learned in such a hard way need never go unheeded.