There is a snowy stillness that has turned to sadness in the White Mountains and the Rim Country as the search for Willa Rawlings, 6, continues in Tonto Basin along the banks of Tonto Creek.
A community effort of prayer, hope and support for the Rawlings family tragedy.
At 3 p.m. on Sunday, close family friend Dawn Hall posted a prayer request via social media imploring “... everyone to kneel and pray for Willa to be found today. At 3 p.m. please join us as we kneel as family and friends. Please spread the word ... They have found some clothing today; we know we are close. Mass prayer at 3 p.m.”
Late Sunday afternoon, family members confirmed that the clothing found by searchers belonged to the still missing girl named Willa. Multiple first responder agencies and volunteers continued the search as long as possible on Sunday night.
Willa is the third of three children who are members of a Lakeside family. She, along with the two other young children were swept downstream near the Bar X Crossing along Tonto Creek on Friday, Nov. 29, according to the Gila County Sheriff’s Office (GCSO).
The family attempted to cross the flooded creek in an area that was reportedly closed or barricaded due to rising floodwaters in a military-style truck.
The bodies of 5-year-old children, Colby and Austin Rawlings, were located on Saturday approximately three miles downstream from where the officials said the vehicle had been submerged. During a Saturday press conference, Austin was confirmed to be the niece of the couple in the vehicle.
Authorities reported a total of nine people from the White Mountains in the military-style vehicle that was together as part of a holiday gathering the day after Thanksgiving. Two adults and six children were in the vehicle at the time of the incident.
The man and woman are parents to four of the seven children that were in the vehicle, according to the sheriff’s office. “A man and four children made it out of the vehicle and were stranded on an island following the crash,” said GCSO. “A woman was also able to escape and get to a nearby bank.
Members of the group who escaped the vehicle were eventually rescued and taken to shore with the assistance of a Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office helicopter.”
Helicopters, drones, ATVs, horseback, kayakers and dogs have also been utilized in the search according to sheriff’s deputies and Sunday’s press conference led by Gila County Sheriff’s Sgt. Dennis Newman.
On Saturday, at least 50 people were said to be assisting in the search and rescue efforts for the children. As of Saturday, that number was said to have grown to several hundred.
Tanner Malherdh of Show Low, a friend of the Rawlings family spent all day helping with the search. “There were so many people at every area you can get to on that river — several hundred at least,” says Malherdh. “There were hundreds of vehicles and it seemed like each one had four or five people to a vehicle.”
Malherdh was accompanied by several other co-workers who also know the Rawlings family and said that “Everyone is banding together. People who don’t even know each other are helping and a huge part of those are people from Lakeside-Pinetop, Show Low and all over the White Mountains,” he said. “I ran into at least 20 people I know just today.”
“There were so many people trying to help, authorities seemed to be getting concerned about the safety of others,” said area resident Marva Riccitelli.
“The water level supposedly dropped about four feet since yesterday,” says Malherdh, “but it’s still really moving fast — I mean really fast.”
Daniel and Lacey Rawlings of Lakeside are well known throughout the community. Many as friends and family and others who know them for Rawlings Specialty Contracting LLC which has been a local business more than 20 years.
A GoFundMe account has been created on social media for Austin Rawlings and another account has been created for Colby and Willa who are siblings.
Now, adding to the heavyweight of sadness, is today’s announcement of a celebration of life for Austin Rawlings. Services will be held at 2 p.m., Friday, Dec. 6 at Christ’s Church of the Valley, 7007 West Happy Valley Road in Peoria.
“Rawlings Strong” has become the message shared and passed along via social media as the town of Pinetop-Lakeside, the White Mountains community and so many others try desperately to take some of the burden from the hearts of the Rawlings family.
On social media, there has been an outpouring of support for the family and rescuers as they continue to look for Willa.
“Words cannot express the tremendous selflessness that this community has shown,” wrote Staci Zahn on the Facebook community page. “My friends, family and neighbors were walking the shoreline for hours after this accident looking for the missing children. Most have gone with no sleep and little food during this search. We’re starting again in the morning, so please keep the tireless searchers in your thoughts tonight.”