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Bodies of young Utah sisters recovered after slot canyon flash flood

Search teams work in the area where heavy rains flooded a slot canyon near Goblin Valley State Park in an area called Little Wildhorse Canyon on Monday, May 11, 2020, that killed a 7-year-old and her 3-year old sister while they were hiking with their family.
Search teams work in the area where heavy rains flooded a slot canyon near Goblin Valley State Park in an area called Little Wildhorse Canyon on Monday, May 11, 2020, that killed a 7-year-old and her 3-year old sister while they were hiking with their family.
Meghan Thackery, Deseret News

GREEN RIVER, Emery County — A tragic end followed a Mother’s Day weekend camping trip as the bodies of two young sisters were recovered after being swept away in a flash flood in a narrow slot canyon near Goblin Valley State Park.

The body of a 3-year-old girl missing since Monday was found about noon Tuesday. Her 7-year-old sister also died in the flash flood. The older child’s body was recovered Monday by her father.

The names of the victims, from West Jordan, were not immediately released. But friends decorated their neighborhood with ribbons on Tuesday and placed a sign on the family’s garage stating, “We love you.”

The family was camping in the San Rafael Swell for Mother’s Day and went hiking on Monday in the popular Little Wildhorse Canyon.

“It is with great sadness that (the sheriff’s office) confirms that the deceased victim of (Monday’s) flash flood in Little Wildhorse Canyon is a 7-year-old Utah girl. The search continues today for her missing 3-year-old sister,” the Emery County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement Tuesday morning.

“A piece of clothing believed to belong to the missing 3-year-old was found (Monday) night approximately 7 miles down a wash from the staging area. There are 67 personnel searching for the missing girl this morning.”

Everyone else who was hiking in the canyon on Monday made it out safely.

A heavy isolated thunderstorm formed over the San Rafael Swell on Monday. The main portion of the storm crossed right over Goblin Valley State Park and was capable of producing nickel-sized hail, according to the National Weather Service.

Little Wildhorse Canyon and the adjacent Bell Canyon form an 8-mile loop. The canyons, which in some spots are so narrow that hikers have to turn sideways to get through them, are popular hiking trails with families.

Emery County Sheriff Greg Funk said four members of the family — the two girls, their mother, and an uncle — were about 3 miles into the canyon when the storm hit, and it swept them another 2 to 3 miles.

Search teams work in the area where heavy rains flooded a slot canyon near Goblin Valley State Park in an area called Little Wildhorse Canyon on Monday, May 11, 2020, that killed a 7-year-old and her 3-year old sister while they were hiking with their family.
Search teams work in the area where heavy rains flooded a slot canyon near Goblin Valley State Park in an area called Little Wildhorse Canyon on Monday, May 11, 2020, that killed a 7-year-old and her 3-year old sister while they were hiking with their family.
Meghan Thackery, Deseret News

“It would be like putting them through a washing machine,” he said.

The girls’ father saw the water coming out of the mouth of the canyon, and then found his 7-year-old daughter. He tried to perform CPR, but was not successful. The girls’ mother was also taken to a local hospital to be treated for undisclosed injuries not considered to be life-threatening.

Officials reported Monday that at least 21 people were able to get out of Little Wildhorse safely.

Heavy rains flooded a slot canyon near Goblin Valley State Park in an area called Little Wildhorse Canyon on Monday, May 11, 2020, that killed a 7-year-old who was hiking with her family. Her 3-year-old sister is still missing.
Heavy rains flooded a slot canyon near Goblin Valley State Park in an area called Little Wildhorse Canyon on Monday, May 11, 2020. A 7-year-old and her 3-year old sister, who were hiking with their family, were killed.
Emma Porter

Some of those people posted pictures and videos on Facebook showing the water rushing from higher ground into the slot canyon.

“My first slot canyon adventure was a full immersion in what park rangers are calling ‘the flash flood of the decade,’” one man posted, stating he was “forced to take shelter and seek higher ground due to a strong storm that unexpectedly moved into the area. We were pinned there just above narrow slots in awe and fear as the bone dry creek bed quickly rose with swiftly moving muddy water.

“The canyon walls became waterfalls, large hailstones accumulated and rocks were crashing down. After nearly an hour and surprisingly long after the rain had stopped, we determined the water level had receded enough to safely scramble through the slots below.”

The man said he and others with him had to swim through waist-deep water to get back to the trailhead.

Nearly 80 searchers from four counties, two helicopters from Classic Air in Moab, the Utah Department of Public Safety’s helicopter and six ambulances participated in Tuesday’s search, according to the Emery County Sheriff’s Office. All were emotionally affected by the search, deputies said.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert issued a statement Tuesday evening expressing his sorrow over the news and thanking searchers for their efforts.

“Jeanette and I extend our deepest sympathies to the family who lost their two daughters in yesterday’s flash flood,” Herbert said. “Utah mourns with the family and prays that they may be comforted in this heartbreaking time.”

Heavy rains flooded a slot canyon near Goblin Valley State Park in an area called Little Wildhorse Canyon on Monday, May 11, 2020, that killed a 7-year-old who was hiking with her family. Her 3-year-old sister is still missing.
Heavy rains flooded a slot canyon near Goblin Valley State Park in an area called Little Wildhorse Canyon on Monday, May 11, 2020. A 7-year-old and her 3-year old sister, who were hiking with their family, were killed.
Emma Porter

Contributing: Felicia Martinez, Alex Cabrero, Dan Rascon