Tonto Basin truck swept away, 2 of 3 children missing in Tonto Creek.
As daylight waned, authorities suspended search efforts Saturday for a third child, a 6-year-old girl, who was missing near Tonto National Forest after the vehicle she was in got stuck in flooded Tonto Creek a day earlier.
On Friday afternoon, six people — two adults and four children — were rescued when the vehicle was overcome by water in the creek following a major winter storm, according to the Gila County Sheriff’s Office. Three young children had stayed in the vehicle, and two of them were found dead Saturday.
Rescuers will continue searching for the third child, a daughter of the two adults, at 7 a.m. Sunday, sheriff’s officials said.
The body of a 5-year-old boy, a son of the adults, was found at 8:45 a.m. Saturday about 3 miles downstream from where the vehicle became stuck, according to sheriff’s officials. A second child’s body, a 5-year-old niece of the adults, was found at 11:14 a.m.
It was unclear how the children got from the truck into the creek, and whether or not the children were wearing seat belts at the time, according to Lt. Virgil Dodd of the Gila County Sheriff’s Office.
“Hopefully, we will find her soon and bring her back to safety,” Dodd said.
Rescue teams continued search efforts early Saturday morning with aircraft, kayakers, ATVs and rescue dogs. Sheriff’s deputies patrolled the area, and rescue vehicles made their way down a dirt path to the search area.
Search conditions were described as difficult.
“It’s very hard with all the brush and everything we’ve got to go through, the strong waters going downstream,” said Dodd.
Helicopters are flying up and down stream, and they’re checking the islands in the area.
The family members are from various areas of Arizona and were believed to have been in the area visiting relatives for the Thanksgiving holiday, Dodd said.
He could not speak to the condition of the rest of the family, but said they hope the missing girl will be found safely.
Resident: It’s common to get stuck in the creek
Rescue personnel had located the vehicle, described as a military-style truck, in the creek Friday night about 600 to 1,000 yards away from the Bar X crossing. But they were not able to remove it.
“Today, we were able to get it out,” Dodd said. “At this time, there is nobody in the truck.”
Throughout the night Friday, rescuers tried to search downstream with help from Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and Arizona Department of Public Safety helicopters, Dodd said.
At the Butcher’s Hook, a local diner, several booths were filled Saturday morning with guests talking about the incident, describing what they had heard from news reports and asking waitresses if they knew of any updates.
Robert Edgett lives in the area and said it’s common for people to get stuck in Tonto Creek.
“Whenever this river runs and runs good like this, someone tries to cross it,” he said.
He said there’s been a local push for the state to build a bridge over the creek because crossing the creek is the only way to get to some of the houses in the area, which is why he believes people would try to cross even when it’s flooded.
“It’s not worth anyone’s life to drown in the river that they (the state) can put a bridge on,” he said. “I know the cost is there, but it’s time the state stepped up and did their job. We’re not paying road taxes for nothing.”
Wes Bowser has lived in the area for 10 years and also said people frequently speed on the road or attempt to cross the creek when it’s flooded, adding that he knows several people who have totaled their vehicles in the process.
He heard about what happened from his brother-in-law’s wife, who lives nearby and called him at around 6 p.m. Friday.
“My wife stayed up most of the night crying,” he said. “When we found out there were still three missing — the younger ones — we both cried.”
Edgett said he approached Gila County Sheriff Adam Shepherd at the scene Saturday morning and offered his help.
He said Shepherd told him to “really study” the area and alert authorities if he spotted anything out of the ordinary.
Edgett said he used a spotting scope to observe the upper end of the creek. He noticed a strong current but didn’t see any signs of the children, he told The Arizona Republic before it was announced two of the children were found dead.
Edgett said he knew of several neighbors who were “devastated” by the incident to the point that they hadn’t left their houses despite having Saturday plans.
“I could not imagine what this is like for someone to lose their children,” he said. “It’s devastating.”
6 people were rescued Friday
Gila County Sheriff’s Office said it received a report just after 4 p.m. Friday of an RV stuck in the creek near the Bar X Crossing. Bar X was closed earlier that day due to flooding caused by a major winter storm.
There were barricades across the road at the time, and signs that say do not cross when flooded, according to Dodd.
One adult and four other children were found stranded on an island and rescued from the area via helicopters by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and the Arizona Department of Public Safety, according to Gila County Sheriff’s Office. Another adult was rescued from the shore.
Officials believe everyone was riding in the cab of the truck at the time it got stuck.
Those rescued were taken to a medical facility to be evaluated.
Sheriff’s officials advised the public not to ignore signs that warn of flooded roads.
“It’s very dangerous when you try to cross a flooded area like this,” Dodd said. “Even a foot of water can make your vehicle float with the swift water that comes down from the mountains … the muddy water, the rockiness and the debris that’s in there can cause a lot of damage to a vehicle and to a person.”
He said another individual had also tried to cross the creek at another flooded crossing point, drawing resources from the search party.