Water Wheel helicopter

A Department of Public Safety helicopter (above) hovers over Water Wheel Sunday after a flash flood carried 14 people downstream Saturday. At left, a pair of socks left on a boulder in the Water Wheel parking lot. Below, the floodwaters passed under the bridge at First Crossing before ebbing.

In what rescuers are calling the most tragic flash flood event in recent Rim Country history, a wall of debris-choked water washed down the East Verde and killed at least seven people on Saturday afternoon, with three others still missing and presumed dead.

It is believed monsoonal rain carried debris from the slopes seared by the Highline Fire down into the canyon, which reportedly crashed into the group of 14 people just after 3 p.m. east of the popular Water Wheel recreation area above First Crossing.

Emergency responders rescued four people Saturday south of the Cold Springs swimming hole where the group had been swimming, including a man clutching a baby.

They also rescued a man, not with the group, about three-quarters of a mile upstream, stranded on a rock in the middle of the river.

They located three bodies Saturday night and four more Sunday morning.

Three people remain missing.

Sgt. Dennis Newman, with the GCSO, said they did not expect to find any more survivors.

Along with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, the Department of Public Safety and Tonto Rim Search and Rescue were out Sunday combing the river for the three still missing.

The group was made up adults and children that officials believe were related or close friends.

The group parked three vehicles at the Water Wheel parking lot and walked about three-quarters of a mile up the canyon to the swimming hole.

Officials said the area was very busy Saturday with people fishing and swimming along the creek.

About 3 p.m., Payson experienced heavy rain, resulting in flash flooding in the area.

Beaver Valley residents, who live downstream, said they heard a rumble and saw a wall of debris roar down the normally calm stream.

The Weather Service issued flash-flood warnings for the area Sunday afternoon that extend through Monday evening.

At this time, the First and Second crossings on Houston Mesa Road as well as Water Wheel are closed.

Sheriff Adam Shepherd thanked TRSAR, DPS, Water Wheel Fire Department and the U.S. Forest Service for their response.

See Tuesday’s Roundup for additional details of the tragedy.

Contact the reporter at abechman@payson.com

Contact the reporter at abechman@payson.com


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(7) comments


50 years ago my Grandfather, experienced outdoorsman, told me that if I find myself in a desert region, a canyon or a wash, and it starts to rain, get to high ground. Don't think about it, just get to high ground. I am sorry for the lost souls and their families who did not have the benefit of knowing what can happen in dry regions subjected to rare but powerful rainfall.


Exactly.. Someday something you know may save your life. The nature we are a part of is unforgiving when met with ignorance. Monsoon is no joke. Humans are not immortal.


but it may not be raining where you are located but instead is raining a couple miles away.


That is very true, according to what I read the rain storm was around 8 miles away from where this happened. Many don't realize the danger of storms that may not be close but will cause flooding where you are. So sad.


Good advice. However most people who are caught off guard is because the rain was miles upstream and blue skies where they are.


Sure do welcome some rain (La Paz County), but that's crazy!!! Condolences to the families.


Glad you're o k . Thanks for update .

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