A rural fire chief says at least four people were found dead and about a dozen more are missing after flash flooding poured over a popular swimming area inside the Tonto National Forest in central Arizona. (July 16)

A flash flood at a popular swimming hole north of Payson killed nine people Saturday, and left several more missing, officials said Sunday. 

The Gila County Sheriff’s Office received a 911 call shortly after 3 p.m. Saturday about flooding at a swimming hole known as Cold Springs near the Water Wheel campground in the Tonto National Forest. 

Water Wheel Fire and Medical District Fire Chief Ron Sattelmaier said more than a hundred people were in the Cold Springs swimming hole Saturday afternoon when a severe thunderstorm pounded down on a nearby remote area that had been burned over by a recent wildfire.

Three bodies were recovered Saturday and six others were found Sunday. Two adults and two children rescued by helicopter Saturday were taken to the hospital for hypothermia. Officials said Sunday afternoon that a 13-year-old boy is still missing. 

The dead include four adults and five children, and authorities believe they are an extended family from Phoenix and Flagstaff.

Officials said that at least 40 volunteers were helping scour the area. 

“There’s no way of knowing how many people were actually there,” Sattelmaier said. “It’s pretty much recovery (now). We don’t believe there’s anybody left out there.”

The thunderstorm hit about 8 miles upstream along Ellison Creek, which quickly flooded the narrow canyon where the swimmers were enjoying a cool dip a on a hot summer day.

“They had no warning. They heard a roar and it was on top of them,” Sattelmaier said.

One of the first responders told the Arizona Republic that it was a “6 foot tall, 40 foot wide black wave” moving at 45 mph through a narrow canyon. It took down trees and boulders and soot and ash from the fire scar.

There had been thunderstorms throughout the area near Payson, about an hour and half’s drive from Phoenix, but it wasn’t raining where the swimmers were. During monsoon season, weather like this can strike furiously.

“I wish there was a way from keeping people from getting in there during monsoon season. It happens every year. We’ve just been lucky something like this hasn’t been this tragic,” Sattelmaier said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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