As Steve West dangled from a rope hooked to a hovering helicopter, he wrapped his arms tightly around the 4-year-old boy he had just plucked from raging floodwaters below.
West, a Pima County sheriff’s deputy among those sent to rescue hikers stranded in a canyon, was scared the child would fall through the harness that seemed loose around his small frame. But West managed to safely hoist the boy into the helicopter and away from the rapids that forced him and his father atop a boulder.
The two were among 17 hikers stuck Sunday in the scenic canyon on Tucson’s outskirts when a flash flood swept through the area. All but two were rescued from Tanque Verde Falls on Sunday night, and the remaining hikers were lifted to safety Monday morning after spending the night stuck on a ledge on the side of a cliff.
Pima County Sheriff’s officials previously said rescuers walked seven hikers out of the canyon, but later they said all were airlifted out. One of the 17 suffered minor leg injuries that did not require medical attention, authorities said.
The rescue happened eight days after floodwaters killed 10 members of an extended family more than 140 miles (225 kilometers) to the north in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest. The family of 14 was celebrating a birthday at a swimming hole on July 15 when they were swept away by a wall of water that cascaded down a canyon without warning.
A funeral mass was planned Tuesday for the victims that included a couple, their three young children and the woman’s mother and sister.
Following that tragedy, the rescuers who successfully got the hikers out of the canyon near Tucson said they were very lucky.
“There were generations of a family that were literally swept away, and that easily could’ve happened yesterday,” said Erick Maldonado, who supervises the sheriff’s search-and-rescue unit.
Jeff Springfield, who was in the Tanque Verde Falls area on Sunday, said he saw what appeared to be a family playing in the water and other hikers who warned them of the danger. He clambered onto higher ground just before the rushing creek turned into a muddy, churning torrent.
Springfield said an alert on his phone warned him of the flash flood a few minutes before it hit — a warning that likely failed to reach victims of the earlier and deadly flood because of bad cellphone service in the area.
People in Arizona often go hiking when rains ease triple-digit summer temperatures. But that’s when the danger of flash flooding skyrockets, authorities said.
The rescue was a reminder of those risks during Arizona’s summertime monsoon season, an unpredictable weather phenomenon that brings powerful storms with bursts of heavy rain that can overwhelm usually calm waterways.
Three hikers, including the 4-year-old boy, were saved from the swollen creek as they clung to tree branches with water up to their waists, said Shelley Littin of the Southern Arizona Rescue Association. Other hikers climbed cliffs as high as they could to find safety on rock ledges.
The creek normally has just a trickle of water, allowing people to play in shallow pools. But Littin said the water level jumped about tenfold in five minutes and was at least 6 to 8 feet (1.8 to 2.4 meters) deep.
Crews late Sunday dropped food, water and blankets to the two hikers who could not be rescued until Monday morning. Littin and another volunteer rescuer spent the night across canyon within yelling distance to make sure the pair stayed safe.
Milt Kennedy, who piloted the rescue helicopter, said he was frustrated he had to leave them in the canyon overnight, but he could not risk the helicopter’s blades hitting the canyon walls in the dark.
Multiple hiking websites warn that Tanque Verde Falls is one of southern Arizona’s most dangerous hiking locations. A flash flood that swept through the area in July 1981 killed eight people.
Tanque Verde Falls is a series of multiple waterfalls, none taller than 100 feet (30 meters). Visitors often swim and picnic after a short hike to the lower falls, but the trail to the main falls is longer and more strenuous. The narrow canyon, about 350 feet (107 meters) deep, is littered with sharp rocks and cactuses.
Authorities issued a flash flood watch for a wide swath of southern Arizona on Sunday, and Tanque Verde Falls was within that area, said Gary Zell, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
People going into mountains or other flood-prone spots should know the conditions before heading off, Zell said. “They’re not good places to be when there’s a risk of thunder, lightning and heavy rain,” he said.
People often decide to go hiking after it stops raining, not realizing the water they see in the creek is from earlier rainfall and much more could be headed their way, the sheriff’s department said.
“What’s coming is a lot more fierce,” said Deputy Cody Gress, a sheriff’s spokesman.
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