PHOENIX (AP) — When a wall of water came toward him, all Cesar Garcia could think to do was protect his young daughter and try to save his nephew.
Garcia and his extended family were celebrating his sister’s birthday with a trip from Phoenix to a waterfall known as Water Wheel in the central Arizona wilderness.
The family, including his mother, sisters and brother, brother-in-law, nieces and nephews, were a mile into their hike when a flash flood hit July 15, an unrelenting torrent that killed everyone in the group of 14 but Garcia, his wife and two children.
“All of the sudden this wave appeared from far away, and I screamed to them, ‘Hey, let’s get out of the way! Let’s get out of the way!’ But it was coming too fast, we couldn’t do anything,” he told The Associated Press in his Phoenix home Wednesday.
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Garcia instinctively clutched his 1-year-old daughter, Marina, and grabbed the shirt of his nephew who had fallen. But the boy slipped from his grasp.
“I couldn’t hold on to him,” he said. “After that, it was just water, debris.”
Rocks and trees in the water slammed into Garcia, tearing flesh from his legs and bruising his rib as he tried to shield his tiny daughter. The pair went under and Garcia was able to grab hold of a bush.
But the force of the torrent was too strong, and they were washed away a second time, swallowed up by the muddy slurry tearing through jagged rocks.
“All I could think of was like, ‘Hold on to my baby.’ If I didn’t hold on to her, she was going to be gone,” he said.
“You don’t really think about saving yourself, you just think about the kids. You get hit, whatever, you just hold on to them, never let them go,” he said.
Garcia managed to latch on to a tree, still keeping his grip on little Marina. Soon, hikers appeared, and he asked if they had seen any others.
Yes, they said, a little way up was Garcia’s wife. Nearby was his then-8-year-old son, who escaped the water’s fury largely unscathed.
Garcia said his instinct was to help the children near him, and he believes that’s how his family reacted as well. Five children were among the 10 people who died in an instant.
“(The adults) didn’t want to save themselves because they were looking after the kids,” he said.
Garcia and Marina had been swept about 40 yards (meters) downstream, and he…