Slot Canyon Tragedy Claims 11 lives

08/13/97- Updated 09:01 PM ET Hiking party warned of flash flood threat

PAGE, Ariz. - A flash flood sent an 11-foot wall of water crashing through a normally dry canyon no wider than a hallway in places, sweeping away a dozen hikers. One person survived and 11 were feared dead Wednesday.

One body was recovered and searchers combing the water, mud and boulders Wednesday had little hope of finding the other 10 alive after Tuesday's flood.

"I honestly think at this point we're going to find 11 bodies," said sheriff's Detective Gil Moreno.

The hikers - most of them foreign tourists - were in a section of Antelope Canyon where the walls narrow into an awe-inspiring sliver through the gold, red and orange sandstone. The canyon near the Utah state line is so narrow that hikers can touch both sides at some points.

On Tuesday afternoon, it filled with a wall of water after a thunderstorm hit near Page. A severe thunderstorm warning had been issued for the area 45 minutes before the flood, but the spot where the hikers were swept away got only a trace of rain.

An official with the tour company that led five of the hikers into the canyon said there was no indication of trouble. But the police chief of the Navajo Nation, where the canyon is located, said the tour group was warned of the threat of flooding.

Horrified tourists watched from the top of the so-called slot canyon as the 12 were swept downstream.

"They said there was a 10- to 11-foot wall of water that just came screaming down the canyon," said Joe Wright, a counselor brought in to help the witnesses. "Some of them were standing up above and just had to watch it wash through while the others were down below."

The body of a woman was recovered Wednesday after it was spotted from a helicopter a mile and a half downstream. Of the 11 missing hikers, two are Americans, seven are French, one is from Britain and one is from Sweden, said sheriff's Sgt. David Ramos. Five were members of a tour group organized by TrekAmerica, a British company that offers outdoor tours around the country and caters to young Europeans.

The TrekAmerica group's tour guide was rescued while clinging to a rock at the bottom of the canyon, Sheriff Joe Richards said. Poncho Quintane, 28, was treated at a hospital and released.

"As far as I know, it was a nice lovely day, and there was no indication that this was coming," said Jeff Sandy, director of international sales and marketing in TrekAmerica's Rockaway, N.J., office. The guides know "you don't go anywhere in there if there's going to be a flash flood."

However, Navajo Nation Police Chief Leonard Butler said a local resident who collects admission from canyon hikers warned the tour group about the danger of flash flooding because of a storm in the area.

Divers and other searchers checked the four miles of Antelope Canyon between the slot canyon and Lake Powell for other victims but found none before the search was postponed Wednesday afternoon for fear of more flooding.

"They could be buried by the silt and debris, or they could wash all the way down to Lake Powell," Fire Chief Tom Van Meenen said.

Antelope Canyon runs through Navajo land to an outlet in Lake Powell in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. There are few places where hikers can get in and out of the canyon.

"There are some very steep-sided walls," said Eileen Martinez, a ranger for the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

It was the fourth devastating flash flood in Arizona in less than a week during the Southwest's annual monsoon season.

On Sunday, a wall of water rushed through the Havasupai Indian Reservation in the Grand Canyon, and hundreds of residents and tourists had to be rescued by helicopter.

About 100 miles southwest of the Havasupai flood, an Amtrak train derailed Saturday after rushing water damaged a low bridge. More than 150 people were injured.

In extreme southern Arizona, a flash flood Aug. 6 killed six illegal aliens crossing a drainage culvert in the border town of Douglas.

By The Associated Press

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