8 dead, 5 missing as Utah flood sweeps away cars

flash_flooding_091515

A vehicle rests in debris after a flash flood Monday, Sept. 14, 2015, in Hildale, Utah. Authorities say multiple people are dead and others missing after a flash flood ripped through the town on the Utah-Arizona border Monday night. (Photo: Mark Lamont, AP)

ST. GEORGE, Utah — At least eight people were confirmed dead and five more missing late Monday after two cars were caught in a flash flood in Hildale on the Utah-Arizona border.

Several vehicles were reportedly swept into waterways after heavy rains hit at approximately 5 p.m. MT, including two vehicles that had been carrying 16 people in Maxwell Canyon north of the city, said Kevin Barlow, assistant fire chief. The victims included women and small children, all from the Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, area. The towns are adjacent to each other across the state line.

Barlow said witnesses described a massive flash flood in Maxwell Canyon that pushed the two vehicles into a flood channel, washing them several hundred yards downstream.

“This wall of water just way out of the channel came up behind them and pushed them in,” he said. The water was “far beyond its banks” and the flooding was “far more significant that we’re seen for a long time,” Barlow said.

As of 11 p.m. there were seven confirmed deceased, three surviving victims and one transported to Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George for treatment. Six people were still missing.

The Utah Division of Emergency Management said in a later Facebook post that “an additional victim has been located … bringing the total number of confirmed fatalities to 8. There are still 5 unaccounted for.”

Multiple agencies were on scene trying to assist, including swiftwater search and rescue team members. Barlow said they were likely to stop operations for the night and resume searching in the morning because of the dark and increased danger.

The National Weather Service had issued a flash flood warning for the area at the time, indicating that heavy storm clouds were moving into the area from the south.

Pete Wilensky, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, said radar estimates indicated a pocket west of Hildale saw about 2.5 inches of rain over the course of two separate storm cells, one which passed through at about 3 p.m. and the other after 5 p.m.

The second storm was the stronger of the two, and with rivers already on the rise from the previous storm it exacerbated the flooding issues, Wilensky said.

“You put an inch or so of rain on top of that in a short period of time and everything went nuts,” he said.

Estimates across the area indicated between 1 inch and 1.5 inches fell, raising water levels in Zion National Park and other areas.

Park service officials reported issues with rock slides, mud and other issues on the roads as the storm moved across the park.

The Hildale community served as a home base for polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs. Members of the sect, whose members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven, are believed to be discouraged from watching TV, using the Internet or having much contact with the outside world.

Barlow said he didn’t know whether residents were aware of the flash flood warning.

Contributing: The Associated Press.