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2 die as torrential rain hits Tucson
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2 die as torrential rain hits Tucson

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Two women were killed when they were swept away by rushing water and public-safety agencies had to help dozens of stranded motorists from inundated vehicles, as the Tucson area was hit by torrential rain Monday that shattered the daily record rainfall total for the city.

The heavy rain, associated with Tropical Storm Norbert, flooded streets, caused scattered power outages, stopped traffic, closed Pima Community College, disrupted after-school activities and turned washes into deadly torrents of rushing water.

Emergency personnel spent much of the morning and early afternoon responding to weather-related calls — including the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, which handled 1,000 calls in less than eight hours.

Unofficial rainfall totals topped 2 inches in midtown and in many spots around Tucson, 3 inches in Oro Valley and more than 4 inches in some areas of the Catalina Mountains. At Tucson’s official site, 1.84 inches of rain was recorded at the airport, breaking the previous record for Sept. 8 of .94 of an inch, set in 1919.

The forecast for today and Wednesday calls for slight chances of rain as the area should begin to dry out, according to the National Weather Service.

claiming lives

The storm turned deadly in Tucson and north of the city in Pinal County.

The body of Debra Annette Williams, 53, was pulled out of her vehicle that was swept in a residential wash that carried more than 12 feet of water, said Capt. Barrett Baker of the Tucson Fire Department.

Williams initially was trapped in her car in a wash Monday at 9:31 a.m. at East Calle Betelgeux and South Avenida Ursa, south of East 22nd Street and west of South Kolb Road. The car was submerged and pinned against a pedestrian bridge before it was swept down stream about three blocks.

Firefighters searched for the car for about 30 minutes, and found it once the water began receding at East 22nd Street and the Alamo Wash pinned against a concrete tunnel, Baker said.

The other fatality occurred in Pinal County when a 76-year-old woman, and her husband, 69, attempted to cross the Cadillac Wash in their car from Suizo Road near Oracle Junction, authorities said.

The man called 911 at 12:38 p.m. and told authorities their car began to float down the wash, and that it was taking in water. Both got out of the car, and the man was able to make it to land, but he reported that his wife could not swim and that she was swept away by the current.

A search led to the Honda Accord at 1:34 p.m. about a quarter-mile down from Suizo Road. An hour later, the body of the woman was found further down at the edge of the wash, said Pinal County sheriff’s officials. Her name was not released.

stranding motorists

Tucson-area firefighters and law enforcement authorities responded to about 30 swift-water rescues, and more than 36 stranded motorist calls in the valley.

Northwest Fire District firefighters rescued a man whose car was swept downstream in a wash near West Rudasill and North Oracle roads when he attempted to cross the wash, said Capt. Adam Goldberg, a district spokesman.

“Water was going over the car, but it was not flooded inside,” said Goldberg of the dramatic rescue in which rope was shot over the wash and three firefighters made their way down to the car and pulled the man to safety.

Elsewhere, a motorist rescued a young woman whose car was swept into a neighborhood wash near Robison Elementary School, near East 17th Street and west of Reid Park.

“The car started floating in the wash and it spinned and was pinned against a pedestrian bridge,” said Scott McDaniel, 38, an aircraft electrician. “I got out of my car and ran over to her, and she was hollering and pounding on the window. I stood on the bridge and I was able to pull her out through a rear window, minutes before the car was submerged in water.”

“The girl kept repeating, ‘My mom is going to kill me.’ I told her not to worry about the car. All her mother would care about is that her little girl is safe,” recalled McDaniel.

The storm’s power reached well north into Phoenix, where record rain also fell, flooding streets, stranding cars on freeways and forcing homes to be evacuated. Gov. Jan Brewer declared a state of emergency as some residents used small boats to get around their flooded neighborhoods. Sections of Interstate 10 — with vehicles in water up to their roofs — were closed in Phoenix for long durations during the day.

water under the bridge

The heavy runoff concerned Tucson officials who began monitoring eight bridges over the Santa Cruz River after they received word that a surge of water might be heading through the city.

The city also stationed police officers at some of the bridges to keep pedestrians from the river bank.

“There is a large influx of water coming from Santa Cruz County,” said Mayor Jonathan Rothschild during a 4 p.m. press conference outside City Hall. “We’re concerned about the capacity of our bridges along the Santa Cruz to handle the volume of water that is expected.”

While city officials kept the bridges open to traffic, public safety and transportation employees monitored water levels and were in position to close them if they reached dangerous levels.

In the meantime, Rothschild implored residents to stay away from bridges and river parks. “The view may be intriguing, but it is extremely dangerous,” he said.

emergency calls

The city’s police and fire departments redirected its employees to deal with flooding and call load. Fire departments and districts outside of the city called in for extra personnel to deal with the call loads, authorities said.

Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor said all of the department’s detectives were put on street duty and officers who worked later shifts were called in early.

The Pima County Sheriff’s Department call center received more than 1,000 emergency calls between 8 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. The calls resulted in 279 incidents deputies responded to as of 4 p.m. On a regular 24-hour shift, the department receives about 1,400 emergency calls, said Deputy Tom Peine, a department spokesman.

Today there is a 20 percent chance of rain in the afternoon and early evening in the Tucson-area. However, the chances of rain in Southern Arizona run high, with about a 50 percent chance of rain in the Douglas and Bisbee areas, and a 30 percent chance of rain in Sierra Vista, said Gary Zell, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Tucson should begin drying out today and Wednesday as the chance of rain drops out of the forecast, until a slight chance for rain returns this weekend.

Star reporter Darren DaRonco contributed to this story. Contact reporter Carmen Duarte at or 573-4104.

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