TONTO NATIONAL FOREST, Ariz. — Hector Miguel Garnica’s parents were dining at the restaurant where their 27-year-old son cooked, awaiting his return from a mountain swimming hole where he was celebrating his wife’s birthday in the company of three generations of their tightly knit clan.
As they ate dinner, they got a phone call that brought the unthinkable. Nine relatives, including five children and their daughter-in-law, would not be returning at all. And their son, swept away in the roaring flood that killed the others, was missing. He still had not been found Monday night.
“An entire young family was wiped out,” said Detective David Hornung of the Gila County Sheriff’s Office. “These people are devastated, you cannot describe how they feel.”
Tom Price, general manager of the Horny Toad, a western-themed restaurant outside Phoenix, gave The Associated Press the account of the parents getting the news and leaving for the canyon where the disaster happened.
Price has known Garnica since the cook was 12, and has employed many other members of the clan who loved to cling together and gather at every opportunity.
“They’re like the Brady Bunch, they’re just extremely close. It’s pretty impressive how close they all are,” Price said Monday.
Price said Garnica was an honest, hardworking and family-oriented man.
“I have nothing bad to say about him, you won’t find anyone in this town that has anything bad to say about the guy,” Price said. He said Garnica had experience working at every restaurant in the town while living in the area and “everybody has great things to say about him.”
Rescuers planned to resume their search for Garnica on Tuesday in mountains about 100 miles northeast of Phoenix. To give tired local volunteers a chance to rest, search and rescue teams from all over Arizona will join the quest Tuesday.
“I’ve seen miracles happen before,” Hornung said.
The family had been lounging in a swimming hole where rocks create pools and a series of small waterfalls. The rocks also funnel the flow of water, increasing its deadly force when, as happened Saturday, a thunderstorm up the mountain had dumped up to 1.5 inches of rain in an hour.
Though the National Weather Service sent a flash flood warning over cellphone networks, service in the remote area is patchy at best. Officials say that unless they had a weather radio, the swimmers would have been unaware of the descending wall of water, churning black with cinders from a recent wildfire and choked with tumbling tree trunks and limbs.
“They heard a roar, and it was on top of them,” said Fire Chief Ron Sattelmaier of the Water Wheel Fire and Medical District.
The victims ranged in age from 2 to 60. Their bodies were found up to 2 miles away. Five other people were rescued, some of them clinging desperately to trees.
Authorities and a family member identified the dead as 2-year-old Erica Raya-Garcia; Emily Garnica, 3; Mia Garnica, 5; Danial Garnica, 7; and Jonathan Leon, 13. Also killed were Javier Raya-Garcia, 19; Celia Garcia Castaneda, 60; Maribel Raya-Garcia, 24; and 26-year-old Maria Raya-Garcia, Hector Garnica’s wife.
Hector Garnica’s second cousin, Jessica Mandujano, said the family emigrated from Mexico over the course of 20 years looking for a better life.
Hector and Maria would often throw pizza parties, she said, where they would happily buy slices for all of the children.
Mandujano said their family of more than 50 people was set to get together Sunday for another birthday celebration but canceled the plans when word of the accident came.
“It’s still hard to realize that happened,” Mandujano said. “When you think about it, you just think it’s a lie.”