An afternoon hike in one of Utah’s most popular slot canyons turned into a tragic nightmare for one Utah family that lost two young girls when floodwaters flashed through Little Wildhorse Canyon on Monday.
Authorities have identified the victims as two sisters, ages 7 and 3, but have not released their names. A fundraiser set up by friends of the family identified them as Kinzley and Ellie Graff, of West Jordan.
The body of the older girl, Kinzley, was discovered by her father about 7 miles away from where they had been hiking in the slot canyon. The body of the younger girl was recovered late Tuesday about 30 miles away.
Gov. Gary Herbert and his wife, Jeanette, extended their condolences to the family.
“Utah mourns with the family and prays that they may be comforted in this heartbreaking time," the governor said in a statement Tuesday. "We appreciate the efforts of all who assisted in the search.”
According to the Emery County Sheriff Greg Funk, all the other hikers in the area at the time of the floods were confirmed safe Tuesday morning.
The trouble started Monday about 2:30 p.m. when a severe rainstorm passed over the southeastern park of Utah’s San Rafael Swell, an area riven with narrow canyons that draw thousands of visitors through twisting hallways of sandstone. The rain sent torrents of water through Little Wildhorse and other canyons, putting numerous hikers at risk of being swept away.
“It was a family that got trapped in the worst area you can picture," Funk said Tuesday while briefing reporters gathered at the canyon near Goblin Valley State Park.
The girls who died were hiking with a group of four when the floodwaters hit and swept them all downstream.
“It would have been like putting them through a washing machine,” Funk said. “It was horrific. I cannot even fathom.”
He said the floodwaters pushed the family a minimum of 2 to 3 miles, but he declined to describe the two survivors’ injuries sustained in the ordeal. Emery County coordinated a massive search with crews from three neighboring counties and several state and federal agencies.
At least 21 people exited the canyons safely on Monday, but many vehicles remained at trailheads, raising fears that others remained trapped in the canyons.
The fundraiser page for the family describes the two girls as adventurous, loving to hike and bike with their parents.
The dad, it says, “was always letting the girls paint his nails, put bows in his hair, do his make-up. And he would actually go to the store with them dressed that way."
The page was put up by Elite Marketing Pro LLC, a company the parents have worked with in developing their business. It says the mom told employees there Tuesday that “everything they did for their business and life was centered around those 2 girls so they could make an impact & leave a legacy for them.”
Donors have contributed more than $13,000 to help the family cover funeral costs and medical bills.
Others who were in the canyon at the time described the floodwaters as raging. Husband and wife Tom and Taylor Gowan posted on Twitter that as soon as they heard thunder, they sought high ground. They believe they passed the family with the two girls on their way out, they wrote.
“After we found a high, sheltered spot, all hell broke lose,” Tom Gowan posted. “Heavy rain turned into the heaviest nickel-sized hail I’ve ever seen.”
Taylor Gowan posted a photo of what it looked like before the rain, when they started their hike. It had been sunny and warm before quickly devolving.
She posted a link to the family’s fundraiser Wednesday, noting: “Nothing will take their pain away, but perhaps this will help them focus on healing.”
—Tribune reporter Courtney Tanner contributed to this story.