Zion Park names hikers killed in flooding

Posted at 8:55 AM, Sep 18, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-18 11:55:57-04

ZION NATIONAL PARK, Utah (AP) — Hours after rescuers traversed a 100-foot drop into a rugged Utah area to find the seventh victim of a flash flood, Zion National Park officials released the names of all those killed.

The hikers — six from California and one from Nevada — died when fast-moving floodwaters rushed through a narrow park canyon Monday afternoon.

Late Thursday night, the park listed the California fatalities as Mark MacKenzie, 56, of Valencia; Linda Arthur, 57, and Steve Authur, 58, both of Camarillo; Gary Favela, 51, of Rancho Cucamonga; Muku Reynolds, 59, of Chino; and Robin Brum, 53, of Camarillo. The seventh flooding victim was Don Teichner, 55, of Mesquite, Nevada.

Park officials said Linda Arthur's body was found earlier Thursday a few miles from the sandstone gorge where the group got trapped during a violent rainstorm, in an area that had been unreachable previously amid fears of more flooding. The rest of the victims were found earlier this week.

Some in the group were new to rappelling and were swimming through narrow canyons in a sport called canyoneering, but park policy prevents rangers from assessing their skill level or stopping them from going, even after repeated warnings of the flood risk Monday.

The park is investigating what led to the deaths and reviewing its policies, but the process for canyon entry permits is decided at the national level and any changes would likely need to come from the top down, park spokesman David Eaker said.

"Our heartfelt sympathies go out to those affected by the flash flooding in Keyhole Canyon," Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh said Thursday night. "The canyoneers along with their families and friends are in our thoughts."

The flash flooding also killed at least 12 other people, including nine children, in a nearby polygamous town on the Utah-Arizona border. Raging waters swept two cars downstream, leaving a 6-year-old boy still missing. Three other children survived.

The body of a 33-year-old man who also died in the flooding was recovered Thursday afternoon, authorities in northwestern Arizona said in a Friday news release. Ryan Daniel Mertlich, of Hurricane, Utah, was found about 7 miles south of the Utah line and 6 miles from where his heavily damaged vehicle was discovered in a flood plain, the Mohave County sheriff's office said.

Mertlich's family reported him missing Tuesday, saying he typically drives the back roads in the area. He was last seen Monday evening when he left a relative's home in the St. George area to return home, the sheriff's office said.

In Zion, the seven hikers were clambering through a popular canyon when a deluge seen only once a century unleashed a wall of churning water. The flooding likely rushed over their heads in moments and carried them miles downstream, Eaker said.

"It would be just like a drain, it just funnels down in there very quickly, very fast," he said.

Officials believe the group entered Keyhole Canyon late Monday afternoon, after some of those new to canyoneering took a course, he said. The route is considered entry level, according to canyoneering experts.

In an earlier identification, the Ventura County Sheriff's Department in Southern California said Sgt. Steve Arthur and his wife Linda were part of the group.

Only 80 people a day can visit Keyhole Canyon. The group was told of the danger of flash flooding when they got their entry permit, a common warning during the rainy season, park officials say. They decided to go anyway.

Rangers closed the park's canyons after the storm hit, but there was no way to warn those already inside the majestic slot formations, which can quickly fill with rain water and leave people with no escape.

Aside from one spot near the entrance of Keyhole Canyon, "there really is no high ground. You're in a slot pretty much the whole way," Eaker said.

Exploring slot canyons found in the desert Southwest can require a combination of hiking, climbing, swimming and caving. Canyoneering has grown in popularity in recent years, attracting people who enjoy the challenge and the beauty of the canyons.

Even a small amount of rain can turn a trip deadly as the moisture runs off the desert landscape and fills the canyon with water, branches, rocks and debris.