PHOENIX — As water rushed around him, Cesar Garcia clung desperately to a tree and his 1-year-old daughter, hoisting himself above the debris-filled creek that had swept the pair downstream and killed 10 of his family members.

“All I could think of was like, ‘Hold on to my baby.’ If I didn’t hold on to her, she was going to be gone,” he said.

The horror that so quickly engulfed Garcia on July 15 occurred on what was meant to be a celebratory outing to mark his sister’s birthday.

Garcia and 13 family members set out on a hike to the normally tranquil swimming hole below a waterfall known as Water Wheel in Tonto National Forest, a popular escape from Phoenix’s brutal summertime heat.

A light drizzle earlier in the day had given way to sunshine.

The family was a mile into the trek when a torrential rainstorm in fire-scarred mountains miles away sent water, dirt, ash and trees surging into a creek. Garcia’s mother, two sisters, brother, a brother-in-law and five nieces and nephews were swept away and killed.

“They heard a roar, and it was on top of them,” Fire Chief Ron Sattelmaier of the Water Wheel Fire and Medical District said at the time.

In an interview with The Associated Press at his Phoenix home Wednesday, Garcia recalled feeling helpless as the water swept in.

“All of the sudden this wave appeared from far away, and I screamed to them, ‘Hey, let’s get out of the way! Let’s get out of the way!’ But it was coming too fast, we couldn’t do anything,” he said.

Garcia instinctively clutched his 1-year-old daughter, Marina, and grabbed the shirt of his nephew who had fallen. But the boy slipped from his grasp.

“I couldn’t hold on to him,” he said. “After that, it was just water, debris.”

Rocks and trees in the water slammed into Garcia, tearing flesh from his legs and bruising his rib as he tried to shield his tiny daughter. The pair went under and Garcia was able to grab hold of a bush.

But the force of the torrent was too strong, and they were washed away a second time, swallowed up by the muddy slurry tearing through jagged rocks.

“You don’t really think about saving yourself, you just think about the kids,” he said. “You get hit, whatever, you just hold on to them, never let them go,” he said.

Garcia managed to latch on to a tree, still keeping his grip on Marina. Soon, hikers appeared. Among them was Disa Alexander, who took video of Garcia in the tree.

“We looked down and there’s people in the trees and there’s a guy holding his daughter,” she said at the time. “The water was just going around them and they were just holding on.”

Garcia asked the hikers if they had seen anyone else. Yes, they said, a little way up was Garcia’s wife. Nearby was his then-8-year-old son, who escaped the water’s fury largely unscathed.

Garcia said his instinct was to help the children near him, and he believes that’s how his family reacted as well.

“(The adults) didn’t want to save themselves because they were looking after the kids,” he said.

Garcia clung to the tree for two hours as rescuers waited for the water to recede.

It was while recovering in the hospital that he learned the fate of the rest of his relatives. They had all been within 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.5 meters) of one another on the hike, but somehow it was Garcia’s immediate family who survived.

“What are the chances that our tiny little family survived and the rest of our family didn’t?” he said. “I will ask myself, ‘Why? Why me?'”

Recovering from the physical and emotional effects has been difficult.

“The first couple weeks were really hard. I had a lot of nightmares and I couldn’t sleep,” he said. His daughter was tormented in the early days as well, screaming, “Agua, agua!” in her sleep, which is Spanish for “water.”

Immediately after the terror of that day, Garcia felt like he would never again go back to that site.

“I didn’t want to go back there, but right now, I feel the need to go back there. I don’t know. I just feel like it’s something I need to do,” he said.


Follow Alina Hartounian on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ahartoun.

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ALINA HARTOUNIAN
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