HILDALE, UT -- Rescuers trudged through muddy streambeds Tuesday in a small polygamous town on the Utah-Arizona border and found the bodies of several children who died when their two vehicles were swept away in a torrent of floodwaters that killed at least 12 people. The same flash floods claimed at least four lives in nearby Zion National Park.
The van and SUV were filled with three women and 13 children when a wall of brown water overtook them Monday evening, carrying the vehicles several hundred yards downstream and sending them plunging down a flooded-out embankment with terrifying force. The SUV was smashed beyond recognition. Three people survived, all of them children, in the secluded community that is the home base of Warren Jeffs' polygamous sect.
A witness described rushing to where the vehicles came to a stop and seeing a gruesome scene of body parts, twisted metal and a young boy who survived the flood.
"The little boy was standing there," Yvonne Holm said. "He said, 'Are you guys going to help me?'"
Only one person was still missing Tuesday in the border town, and authorities had not identified the dead. The children in the vehicles ranged from 4 years old to teenagers.
At nearby Zion National Park, authorities found four bodies and searched for three missing hikers who set out Monday to rappel down a narrow slot canyon. They left before park officials closed the canyons that evening because of flood warnings, park spokeswoman Holly Baker said. The hikers, from California and Nevada, were all in their 40s and 50s, Baker said. She had no details on their identities.
In Hildale, the streets were caked in red mud, and earth movers cleared the roads and piled up mounds of dirt. As a helicopter buzzed overhead, crowds of boys in jeans and girls and women wearing deep-colored prairie dresses watched the rescue effort.
Residents called it the worst flood in memory for the sister towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, located about 315 miles south of Salt Lake City at the foot of picturesque red rock cliffs. It was in this area at Maxwell Canyon where heavy rains sent water down Short Creek and barreling through the towns.
The torrent was so fast, "it was taking concrete pillars and just throwing them down, just moving them like plastic," said Lorin Holm, who called the storm the heaviest in the 58 years he's lived in the community.
The women and children were in the SUV and van on a gravel road north of the towns. They were returning from a park when they stopped at a flooded crossing and got out to watch the raging waters, Hildale Mayor Philip Barlow said.
What they apparently did not know was that a flash flood was brewing in the canyon above, he said. It came rushing down and engulfed their vehicles.
"We're greatly humbled by this, but we realize that this is an act of God, and this is something we can't control," said Barlow, a Jeffs follower. "We have to take what we receive and do the best we can."
The National Weather Service had issued a flood warning about three hours earlier for the area, saying: "Move to higher ground now. Act quickly to protect your life." It's unknown if the victims were aware of the warning.
The raging torrents are not uncommon in an area prone to flash floods, but the volume and pace of Monday's rain was a "100-year event," said Brian McInerney, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.
The height of the storm lasted about 30 minutes, pouring 1 inches of rain into a desert-like landscape with little vegetation and many steep slopes.
Monday's weather event was like a bucket of water being poured onto a rock - it slid right off and began running downstream, picking up sediment to create the forceful, muddy "chocolate mess" that rushed through the city, McInerney said.
"It just hit the wrong place at the wrong time," he said.
Officials say some of the bodies were recovered in Arizona several miles downstream.
In Zion National Park - about 20 miles north of Hildale - rescuers were waiting for water levels to drop before entering the canyon to search for the missing. The group was in Keyhole Canyon, which narrows to just 6 feet across in places. Baker said the canyon received more than a half-inch of rain in a single hour.
Park rangers advised the group when they picked up their permit Monday that weather conditions were poor, but until canyons are closed, Baker said rangers leave it up to visitors to determine whether it's safe to continue their excursions.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who was sent to the town, called it one of the worst-weather related tragedies in state history and said the Utah National Guard will send troops.
Chris and Lydia Wyler of Hildale said heavy rainfall usually draws spectators who love to splash in it and watch as it surges through creeks.
"People go out on the streets and kids will start playing," Chris Wyler said. "But this storm that hit yesterday, it was just so severe and so sudden."
The search effort temporarily eased the tension between Jeffs followers and others who no longer belong to the sect but still live there. That split between loyalists who still believe Jeffs is a victim of religious persecution and defectors who are embracing government efforts to pull the town into modern society has sharpened in the four years since Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides.
"We were all coming together for a common cause, without any bad feelings," said Ross Chatwin, who lives in Colorado City.
Floods kill at least 16 in polygamous town, national park