At 3:30 p.m. on August 12, 1997, officers with the Arizona Department of Public Safety responded to reports of a road washout on Route 98 near mile marker 306. The water flowed for some time, and officers stood watch to make sure no one would attempt to cross the flooded wash. Meanwhile, the storm responsible for dumping the rain moved to Le Chee Rock, about 15 miles away from narrow Antelope Canyon. The slot canyon is extremely popular with tourist and photographers. The storm unleashed rain onto the slickrock below, and the water funneled into the wash that runs through Antelope Canyon. The water was the consistency of a chocolate milk shake, and contained debris such as logs and boulders.
Francisco "Poncho" Quintana, 28 years of age, knew what the sudden roar meant - flash flood! But the ladders leading out of the narrow canyon were 100 feet away. Terrified tourists watched from the rim of the canyon as the wall of water slammed into the 12 people in the bottom of the canyon and swept them downstream.
The chocolate brown water was waist-high before Quintana was able to wedge himself and two tourists against the wall behind an elephant ear shaped rock outcropping. A muscular 5-foot-9 former construction worker, Quintana pushed as hard as he could, trying to anchor his feet in the canyon's sandy bottom and hold the two tourists fast to the sandstone wall. He turned his head to see two men flying towards him, their arms and legs thrashing in panic. The men tumbled into Quintana's group and he lost his grip. It was the last he saw of the people he was trying to save. Blinded by mud washed into his eyes, he careened downstream, crashing against the smooth sandstone walls, which range from 3 feet to 20 feet wide. Each time he went under, he didn't know whether he'd surface again.
Quintana survived by remaining calm and concentrating on staying on his back and keeping his feet pointed downstream, just as white water rafters are taught. His hand struck a rock and he grabbed it. He doesn't remember what happened after that.
Quintana was found on a ledge a quarter-mile from where the hikers were first hit by the flash flood at a location where the water struck a canyon wall and shot 30 feet into the air. Quintana had the look and manner of a survivor of a plane crash. Stripped bare of his clothes by the raging water, completely covered in bruises and left temporarily blind by silt trapped under his eyelids, Quintana would be the only survivor. He did not understand why he was alive.
Quintana had worked for Trek America, which offers U.S. outdoor tours catering to young Europeans. This tour set out from Denver, and stopped at Lake Powell, along the Arizona-Utah state line. Five members of the tour accompanied Quintana into Antelope Canyon where it becomes a deep, quarter-mile-long slot so narrow you can hop across its top at points. The undulating canyon has been carved into the pink-swirled sandstone by countless flash floods. The group had already toured the canyon earlier in the day, but several members of the group wanted to go back and use up the rest of their film. They planned to hike to a hole in the rock known as "Eye of the Eagle" arch. Quintana led them down, but less than 100 yards into the deep slot canyon the flash flood hit.
A severe thunderstorm warning had been issued for the area two hours before the flood, but the spot where the hikers were swept away got only a trace of rain. Some finger pointing occurred over whether the hikers should have been warned of the danger. A local resident who collects admission from canyon hikers warned the tour group about the danger of flash flooding because of the storm.
Within hours of the flood, dozens of curious Page, Arizona residents made their way out to Antelope Canyon, and not soon after, several media helicopters and trucks arrived. Less than two days later, 167 media personnel, from the regional, national and international level formed the press crew that followed and reported on the recovery effort. Personnel from the Grand Canyon was called in to coordinate the helicopter traffic; there was a lot of confusion.
It took some time, given the hoards of people and the frenzy that ensued, to develop a list of the people inside the canyon at the time of the flood. Officers checked the cars left behind and spoke with members of the Trek America tour to finalize a list.
Those missing were seven French citizens, two U.S. residents, a Briton and a Swede. As this occurred, the 10 and 12-year-old daughters of Paul and Anita Lohr, from France, grew upset back at their hotel room in Page, not knowing why their parents had yet to return. The couple, it turned out, drowned in the slot canyon. When the two French girls sought help from hotel employees, they could not find someone who spoke French. A translator was called in and the girls were put with a French family to help comfort them.
Crews dispatched in the effort to find survivors or recover bodies could not do much at first because the water kept flowing and continued to flow until 4:00 a.m. the next morning. In the following days, crews worked in Antelope Canyon and on Lake Powell, six miles downstream from the slot canyon. Numerous police and cadaver dog teams came to assist, and the messy, traumatizing effort lasted a full week.
During this time Antelope Canyon practically became a household name in France, as the French media filed numerous reports on the tragedy that left seven of its citizens dead. In a strange twist, the tragedy has boosted the popularity of the canyon.
Beatrice Aline, 20, of France, was the first body recovered in a side tributary of the canyon. Eight of the victims drowned and their bodies were recovered from Lake Powell. Two of the victims have never been located, although the debris field is still occasionally searched in hope that they will someday be located.
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