VEYO – A team of 14 Search and Rescue members, including those trained in swiftwater and high angle ropes rescues, saved 13 people, ages 9-57, who were stranded above the Santa Clara River, pressed against a north wall in Crawdad Canyon, after a flash flood raged through it around 1:30 a.m. Saturday, sweeping away camping gear, personal property and even a minivan from their campsite in the Veyo pool camping area in Veyo.
Friday afternoon, Gorgonio Diaz, of Las Vegas, his wife, and their two children, a girl, 18, and a boy, 9, along with nine other family members arrived at the Veyo Pools Campground area and set up tents, laid out camping chairs, cooked dinner and built a fire.
“It was raining on and off a little bit last night,” Diaz said referring to Friday evening. “We kept looking up and laughing and saying the clouds are going to move over us and then it’s really going to rain.”
Later that evening, after everyone had piled into their tents, Diaz said he was sleeping on and off and could hear the rain. Then, sometime after midnight, he heard a noise that induced him to unzip his tent and look outside.
“It was a loud noise like a rumbling,” Diaz said. “I got out of the tent to see how much water was in the river and I look over and I see that the water was already at my friend’s tent. I run over and yell ‘get out of the tent, get out of the tent!’”
Diaz’s two children were in one tent together and water had begun to fill the bottom of their tent. When he called to them to get out of the tent, they started to come out but then jumped back onto the bed, Diaz said, because they were scared.
“I ran over and pulled my kids out. Those are my kids,” he said. “I would’ve died with them.”
They then pushed upriver in hip-high water to higher ground near some big boulders, where the other family members had gathered. The water had swept away all of the flashlights they had brought with them except one: a Utilitech flashlight which was attached to Diaz’s jeans belt loop. That was the only light that any of them had to navigate through the rising waters, Diaz said.
“It was dark. I don’t know if the water was cold or warm. All I could think about was saving my kids,” he said.
Once everyone was out of the tents and above the water Diaz made one phone call to his cousin, Jesus Guardado, of Las Vegas, because his cell phone’s battery was dying. Guardado had planned on arriving at Veyo Pool Friday night but there was a sudden change in plans and he had rescheduled to drive out Saturday morning.
“At about 1 in the morning I got a call from Gorgonio telling me to call 911. I could hear the rain in the back and all I could say was ‘are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? So I called 911 but they couldn’t do anything because they were stationed in Vegas,” Guardado said. After a few more phone calls Guardado got in contact with St. George Communications Center.
Washington County Sheriff’s Sgt. Sean Sparks and Deputy Judy Randall were called out about 1:40 a.m. about a welfare check in Veyo by the Santa Clara River. Washington County Sheriff Deputy Darrell Cashin, who commands the Search and Rescue teams, said he got the call at about 2 a.m. and responded with both high angle team and swiftwater technicians to the Veyo Campground.
“We got down there and luckily everyone had gotten out of their tents and they were up against the north side of the canyon wall by this little outcropping,” Cashin said. “That water was side to side between that canyon. They had nowhere to go they were on the opposite side with their backs against the wall.”
Cashin’s team arrived and suited up with personal flotation devices, or PFDs, helmets and throw bags and headed into the water upstream, giving quick instructions to Sparks for downstream safety.
It was still raining and lightning was frequently striking. At one point, the moving water took the group’s minivan and slid it 40 feet downstream until it slammed into some larger rocks, Cashin said.
“It was 5-feet deep when we crossed to get these people. It had probably been 8-feet deep when it came through,” Cashin said. “We took the youngest first, and ferried them one at a time to the other side until everyone was out there.”
The rescue procedure involved tying a rope on the side of the river the people were stranded on, throwing it across to the high angle rescuers on the opposite side, so it spans about three feet above the water, then setting up a shuttle. From there they start with the smallest person to the biggest person, and have them put their hand on the rope and then the rescuers form a relay line and hand them off from one rescue meber to the next across the river like a bucket line.
“They were shook up, some of the kids were crying,” Cashin said. “You just talk to ‘em and say, ‘I’ve got you sweetheart – you hang onto me, here’s that rope you don’t let go,’ and you’re just kind of comforting them, and hand them one to the next, saying ‘I’ve got you.'”
After everyone was relayed to the other side of the river, Cashin said they checked, double checked and triple checked to be sure everyone was accounted for.
“My boy was crying and asking, ‘can you bring my dinosaur pillow,'” Diaz said. “The rescuers were like ‘we can’t find it’. Once we were all safe, we started laughing. I was shaking so bad I couldn’t stand up.”
Keys to the parties’ vehicles were in a backpack that was swept away by the river and still has not been found. Search and Rescue looked for the backpack and personal belongings for about 20 minutes before, Cashin called it off because it was dark and dangerous.
“It was still raining, a lot of lightning, and I looked at the radar and there was more coming,” he said.
Search and Rescue members shuttled all 13 people to the Lexington Hotel in St. George. They were wet and muddy, they had no shoes, Cashin said, but they were given rooms for the night paid for by the American Red Cross. They got warmth, sleep, food and water. Friends and family from Las Vegas arrived Saturday morning to help them with transportation as all three of their vehicles are disabled and will need to be towed.
“I don’t know where all this water came from because my understanding is that Baker Reservoir was pretty low. I don’t know if it filled and spilled or was below and came over the hillside,” Cashin said.
But this is real, Cashin said. This is really dangerous. People need to stay out of these slot canyons, even campgrounds when there are flash flood warnings and threatening weather.
Saturday morning, Diaz’s blue water shoes, given to him by the Search and Rescue team, sink into the sticky mud as he walks along the river banks. The Santa Clara River runs frothy and brown and still floods over the bridge that takes visitors to the camping area. His eyes skim over a king-sized blanket with a panda bear barely visible through the mud.
“That was my favorite blanket,” he said pointing. “Me and my wife always used to fight over it because it’s really soft. It’s funny because the river took it,” he said with a laugh.
Diaz came back to the flood site alone in hopes that he would find the keys to his van because his wallet and other personal belongings are locked inside. Though, he realizes that he probably won’t find them, he said. As for the tent, stove and chairs that have washed up onto the shore, he doesn’t plan on trying to save them. He isn’t upset about losing those items because they are replaceable whereas people are not.
“We don’t have money, but we have friends,” he said. “We have friends.”
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