On Sunday, July 26, 1981, tragedy struck at Tanque Verde Falls, a popular recreation area off Redington Road, following a Saturday night of heavy monsoon rains. The Star followed the story for several days until all eight bodies were recovered.
Helicopter barely misses wall of water
A flash flood swept through the popular Tanque Verde Falls area east of the city July 26, killing at least one man and sweeping at least three others over 50-foot Tanque Verde Falls.
The tragedy followed an earlier one when a 22-year-old Tucson man was killed when he dived into a pool at the foot of a smaller waterfall upstream.
A department of public safety officer said a helicopter sent to airlift the victim to Tucson Medical Center was almost caught in a wall of water.
Dennis Welch, an officer-paramedic with the Department of Public Safety, said John D. Evans, 22, of Tucson, was fatally injured in the diving accident. He had just been placed in the helicopter at the foot of a smaller waterfall upstream from the main Tanque Verde Falls when someone yelled “flash flood” and the helicopter lifted off seconds before water came crashing over the cliff above it.
“By the time I turned around, the water was up to my waist,” Welch said. Welch had to scale a nearby cliff and scramble onto a bridge to get back into the helicopter, taking Evans to Tucson Medical Center.
The helicopter then went back to the falls area, and rescued 26 people who were trapped on rocks in the wash. The trapped persons were lifted to the safety of nearby Redington Road.
Witnesses reported seeing at least four other people swept over the cataract in the Redington pass area between the Rincon and Santa Catalina Mountains.
Ken Burgess, a witness to the incident, said he was able to save one child but another he tried to hang onto was swept away in the flood.
Andrew Hoff, a 16-year-old Sahuaro High School student, also saw the recreation area turn into the scene of horror. Hoff had climbed onto a rock above where he and others were swimming when he saw that the water was getting too deep, too fast. “I started yelling, ‘Flash, flood, get out!’ ” he said.
When he looked down for those he had been swimming with, he could only see a churning froth of brown water.
“A girl was near the rock I was standing on,” he said. “I reached out for her, but she went under the rock. She was looking up when she went by. She looked like she was out of breath. I couldn’t believe it.”
Hoff said he sought higher ground as the surging water continued to rise.
Search adds two more names to grim toll
Two more bodies were found July 27 during intensive sweeps of the Tanque Verde Wash east of Tucson, but the grim challenge of finding five more people also believed to have been killed during Sunday’s flash flooding remains.
The discoveries, which came during daylong foot and helicopter searches of the wash, bring to four the number of identified persons who died at the popular recreation spot in the Redington Pass area.
The two bodies were those of Jeff Fieffer, 28, and 18-year-old Michele Margaret Balser, Switzer said.
The first flash-flood victim, discovered Sunday evening, has been identified as Paul Anthony Waid, 33, said Sheriff’s Detective Richard Switzer. His son, Michael, 11, is one of the five persons still missing.
Clues, not falls’ beauty, spur searchers
Under other circumstances, the scene would’ve been idyllic.
But searchers moving cautiously through the Tanque Verde Canyon July 28 had scant interest in the picturesque beauty of the rocky cliffs, blue sky or roaring waters that surrounded them.
Instead, they concentrated on dreary details: a damp scrap of clothing clinging high in a stream-battered bush, a shoe embedded in the sand, a foul odor from a tangled mass of debris. Details that might lead to the discovery of another victim of Sunday’s flash flood.
In the early morning two more bodies were found and removed from the canyon. The body of 11-year-old Michael Waid was found partially submerged near a clump of shrubs almost directly beneath the violently cascading waters of the main falls.
The body of 18-year-old Daria Heredia was found by German shepherd dog teams about a mile downstream from the falls. The body was in a small depression between two huge rock slabs.
Both bodies were found in areas that previously had been searched as thoroughly as the still-rushing stream allowed. Those discoveries brought to five the number of people known to have died under the wall of water, fed by intense rain and reported to be as high as 15 feet, that swept over the 100-foot falls Sunday and crashed down and picnickers below.
Officials said at least three more persons who were in the area when the flood hit are unaccounted for.
Ironically, many who survived the flood have a dead man to thank for their lives officials said.
Rescuers, both on the ground and in two helicopters, were already on the scene when the wall of water hit. They had gone there to pick up John D. Evans, who died after he dived 50 feet into a pool just above the falls.
Rescuers working upstream from the falls saw the approaching wall of water and were able to shout warnings to the picnickers below the falls, said sheriff’s deputy Chuck McHugh, coordinator of the search-and-rescue operations.
“It was just a coincidence. We had just arrived on the scene when this wall of water came down,” McHugh said.
He said 15 people trapped by floodwaters after the wall of water rushed past might not as survived if rescue teams had not been there immediately. Normally, figuring in the time it takes to walk out and phone authorities, rescue teams take about an hour to get to the area, he said.
Only moments separated the survivors from the casualities
Sharon Pendley, who was just above the main falls when the floodwaters hit, was watching the helicopter and rescuers who were maneuvering a litter holding Evans when “all of a sudden someone yelled ‘flood!’ and this wall of water came up.”
“The wall was 5 or 10 feet tall. It was huge, not really a wave, but a wall,” Pendley said. “A big chunk of water thundering in.”
Hydrologists have estimated that the wall of water was moving about 25 mph, hitting victims with the impact of a large truck.
Pendley said the wall of water surprised the rescuers, including the helicopter crew, because the noise of the aircraft’s whirring blades overrode the sound of the approaching wave.
The wave came up so suddenly that it hit the runners of the helicopter as the aircraft struggled to rise in the narrow canyon, Pendley said.
She “got scared” that the helicopter could be caught in the wave and swept over the 100-foot falls onto the estimated 50 to 100 people below.
“I yelled ‘Look out!’ “Pendley said.
Last victims found
On July 30, searchers recovered the bodies of three men, the last victims of Sunday’s flash flood on Tanque Verde Creek. They were: Kevin Ronald Clark, 19; Ralph Leroy Chatham, 27; and John Anthony Parker, 19.