YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. – The deaths of three young tourists who were swept over a 317-foot waterfall this week in Yosemite National Park serve as a reminder of the deadly and alluring beauty of the raging rivers and streams across the West after a record winter snowfall.
As temperatures rise, the melting snow has engorged waterways, causing flooding and sometimes tragic consequences. Some states have seen an increase in water-related deaths that they blame on the surge in river flows.
Witnesses to the Yosemite tragedy described the traumatizing image of a young woman slipping on a rock above the raging Vernal Fall and two friends falling while trying to save her.
In an instant, a church photo opportunity turned horrific beyond description as the frigid Merced River, swollen by snowmelt, swept the trio over the edge Tuesday.
"I can't talk about what happened there," Tanya Badal, sister of one of the victims, said before breaking into sobs Wednesday.
Across the West, rafters, kayakers, swimmers and even some drivers have lost their lives in recent weeks due to fast-moving water.
In Montana, at least 10 people have drowned so far this year and another man is missing and presumed drowned after trying to retrieve an oar that fell out of his raft Sunday. Only three people drowned in 2010, and Montana officials are warning that the difference is the volume of fast and cold water from the melting snowpack and spring rains.
At least 11 people have drowned in Utah waterways since April, many of them swept away in fast-flowing rivers swollen by melting snowpack. The deaths included a 15-year-old boy who drowned in a swollen river near Zion National Park in June while swimming with friends who were swept over a waterfall.
Five people have died after being swept into Colorado's raging rivers and creeks. One of them, a Kansas woman, drowned June 22 after rolling her vehicle into a river.
Swollen rivers in Wyoming have killed at least half a dozen people this summer, including four members of a Colorado family whose vehicle plunged into a washout Tuesday, and a 4-year-old boy who was one of five people in a canoe that capsized on the Green River.
In California, the Sierra Nevada mountain range saw twice its normal snowfall. With high temperatures creating a fast melt, some rivers are flowing with twice the force as usual for a time of year when many might have slowed to a lazy run.
Law enforcement agencies closed long stretches of rivers in the western Sierra Nevada foothills in June as swift water created a potentially deadly allure. More than a dozen people have died along the Kern River in the southern San Joaquin Valley.
Tuesday's deaths bring to six the number of people who have died in water accidents this year at Yosemite, where breathtaking waterfalls and rivers are at their most turbulent level in years.
The force of the falls in Yosemite is jaw-dropping. Yosemite Falls, the nation's tallest, is spewing enough water to fill a gasoline tanker truck every four seconds. The force of water at Bridalveil Falls across the valley kicks up a mist that clouds the meadow below.
"Water is infinitely more powerful than anyone can imagine," said Moose Mutlow, coordinator of Yosemite's Swift Water Rescue program.
Under standard procedure, signs in Yosemite campgrounds and at the bottom of the trail leading to Vernal Fall warn that water is moving swiftly.
In addition, a park newspaper given out at the gate warns about the water hazards. On a page devoted to public safety — including the effects of altitude sickness, river crossings and traffic safety — an article warns visitors to stay away from swiftly moving water.
"Never swim or wade upstream from a waterfall, even if the water appears shallow and calm," the article reads.
Vernal Fall features a guard railing and a metal safety barricade marked with a warning and universal no-swimming icon. The victims in this week's tragedy had climbed over the barricade before they fell.
Park officials said Thursday they have no plans to add new warning signs or other protections following the deaths.
"We feel that the guard railing and the signage at Vernal Fall is adequate to convey the dangers of walking into the Merced River at the top of the waterfall," said park spokesman Scott Gediman.
"Ultimately, it's the visitor's responsibility to exercise judgment and caution when going to the edge of cliffs, whether or not guard rails and signs are in place."
Pastor Genard Lazar had led the group to the falls along the popular hiking trail with his 6-year-old daughter, young people from his church and members of his extended family, church members said. Lazar is youth coordinator of the Diocese of California of the Assyrian Church of the East.
"He can't stop crying," said Romina Kiryakous, a fellow parishioner at St. George's Church in the central California town of Ceres, who sat with the families over two days as they awaited word of the search at the park. "He keeps saying they are my flock and I can't help them. It was the saddest thing to see him crying like that."
Ramina Badal's parents are visibly sickened by grief, paralyzed by the reality of the terrifying manner of death of their daughter and her two friends. At a crowded prayer vigil Wednesday night, Tony and Virginia Badal supported each other as they walked sobbing into the church.
The three college students are presumed dead, and a search for their bodies continues, though park officials said they might remain hidden under boulders until fall when the water — now gushing at four times its average rate for this time of year — recedes.
The victims were identified as Ramina Badal, 21; Hormiz David, 22; and Ninos Yacoub, 27. They were all members of a close-knit community of Christians with roots in the Middle East.
Ramina Badal was studying nursing at the University of San Francisco, her sister said. Friends said Yacoub was studying chemistry at California State University-Stanislaus, and David studied music production at Modesto Community College.
While at Vernal Fall, Ramina Badal slipped, and one of the men fell in trying to grab her. The other, who had been taking photos, tried to grab them and slipped in too.
Jacob Bibee, a seasoned hiker who witnessed the tragedy, said he covered his companion's eyes as the trio went over and chaos erupted. Screams drowned the roar of the falls. Witnesses with cell signals called 911.
"That whole group was just hysterical. They were shrieking. And praying. Then six or seven minutes into it, everyone was silent. There were about 45 or 50 of us and everyone was just silent."
Associated Press writers Lynn DeBruin in Salt Lake City, Colleen Slevin in Denver, Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyo., and Matt Volz in Helena, Mont., contributed to this report.
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