The rescue of 17 people from Tanque Verde Falls was one of the largest and most difficult operations the Pima County Sheriff’s Department has conducted in recent years, officials said Monday.
Rescuers pulled the hikers out of harm’s way Sunday evening and Monday morning as a monsoon-fed flash flood barreled through the falls near Redington Pass northeast of Tucson.
Among the rescued were a man carrying a 4-year-old child on his back, a woman and a boy stranded on a rock and two people caught on a cliff wall as the waters rose.
Although the department has helped groups of 20 or 30 people caught on the wrong side of rushing waters in Sabino Canyon, the Tanque Verde Falls operation was the first time so many people had to be rescued by helicopter, said sheriff’s Deputy Steve West, who took part in the rescue.
A video posted on the Sheriff’s Department Facebook page shows a deputy descending from a helicopter to rescue an individual perched on a rock in the middle of what appears to be a raging river.
The rescue effort began around 5:30 p.m. Sunday when deputies received a call for help from a woman who said rising water levels at the falls had left her and a boy stranded on a rock, said Erick Maldonado, supervisor of the Sheriff Department search-and-rescue unit.
Deputies, volunteers with the Southern Arizona Rescue Association and firefighters from the Rural/Metro Fire Department responded and saw others stranded by the waters on rocks and eight other people on the southern side of the canyon, he said.
A sheriff’s helicopter crew hoisted them out of the canyon, but couldn’t reach two people stranded on a canyon wall.
SARA volunteers lowered themselves down to the two people trapped on a canyon wall to deliver supplies to help them make it through the night, Maldonado said. They were taken out by a Department of Public Safety helicopter Monday morning.
Earlier on Sunday, the creek was “pretty low” and hikers weren’t paying attention to the weather, Deputy Brian Boll said.
“When that water came in, the water levels went from something you could walk across to something that you can’t swim across,” Boll said.
Rescuers pulled 15 people out on Sunday, but the effort became too dangerous after dark, particularly for the helicopter crew.
In order to get a deputy close enough to the people stranded at the bottom of the canyon, “at some points, the main rotor blades were 20 feet away from the rock wall,” West said.
The rescue came less than two weeks after a July 15 flash flood near Payson left 10 people dead. In 1981, eight people died in flash flooding at Tanque Verde falls.
“Honestly, we got lucky,” Maldonado said, noting the stranded hikers were able to call for help, deputies were working, and the helicopter and its crew were available.
The most serious injury reported by sheriff’s officials was a twisted ankle.
However, deputies were preparing for the worst during the rescue effort, Boll said.
“When you see a 4-year-old on their dad’s back and you can’t get to them. That’s tough,” Boll said as he choked back tears.
Maldonado said all of the rescued people were from Tucson and cautioned local residents about the dangers of drowning during monsoon season. A flash flood watch was in place across much of Arizona on Sunday, according to the National Weather Service.
“The rain, the water, it’s got to go somewhere,” he said. “It’s going to go down-canyon, it’s going to go downstream. By the time you hear the water and you see the water, you’re talking about seconds before you can get to safety.”
If local residents find themselves stranded, bright-colored clothing during the day or a cell phone screen at night can help speed up the search, said helicopter pilot Milt Kennedy.