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10 White Caskets and Memories: Funeral Honors Flood Victims

A funeral was held for 10 members of a family who were killed when a flash flood struck an outing at an Arizona swimming spot on July 15.
Image: Funerals
The caskets of family members who were killed in a flash flood are loaded into hearses outside St. Patrick Catholic Church on July 25, 2017 in Scottsdale. Ten members of an extended Arizona family were killed earlier this month in flash flood while they celebrated a birthday.Matt York / AP
/ Source: Associated Press

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — To the strains of "Ave Maria," more than 1,000 people said goodbye Tuesday to 10 members of an extended family who lost their lives in a flash flood while celebrating a birthday in Arizona.

The 10 white caskets belonging to three generations of a Mexican immigrant family were arranged in two rows facing the altar at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Scottsdale, each one bearing a metal crucifix inside its satin-lined lid.

They died together in mere seconds when a dark torrent of water rushed through a placid swimming hole on July 15, killing a grandmother, aunts and uncles, children and grandchildren.

Hector Miguel Garnica, 26, was the last family member found and was identified just in time to be included in the funeral Mass.

He and his wife, Maria del Carmen Raya Garcia, were killed as they celebrated her 27th birthday, along with their three small children: Hector Daniel, 7, Mia, 5, and Emily, 3.

The Rev. Eric Tellez remembered the family as hardworking people, with many employed in the restaurant industry preparing food for others, a pursuit the pastor likened to a ministry.

Image: Funerals
The caskets of family members who were killed in a flash flood are loaded into hearses outside St. Patrick Catholic Church July 25, 2017 in Scottsdale. Matt York / AP

"What is it about this family — that loves to eat and work in places where they feed people?" he asked during an upbeat funeral Mass celebrated in English and Spanish. "It is a vocation of bringing people together."

Tellez said that amid the sadness, there had been kindness and gratitude, people offering to help pay for the funeral and grieving family members bringing food and water to rescuers searching for their loved ones.

"We can be grateful to God even in the saddest moments of our lives," the priest said. "The family has taught us that. "

Tellez briefly described each family member, recalling grandmother Selia as a single parent who raised her children alone, and little Mia "who loved to do everyone's fingernails, including her father's."

His co-officiant was the Rev. Ed Lucero, a priest in the central Arizona town of Payson close to where the family died who blessed each of the victims after their bodies were pulled from the water.

At the Mass, several dozen mourners wore white T-shirts printed with a photograph of the couple, along with their three children. "In Loving Memory," the shirts read.

Also killed was Raya Garcia's mother, Selia Garcia Castaneda, 57; Raya Garcia's brother Javier Raya Garcia, 19; her sister Maribel Raya Garcia, 24; Maribel's daughter Erika Janel Camacho Raya, 2; and Jonatan Leon Villanueva, a grandson of Selia Garcia who would have turned 13 next month.

The group was swept away when a flash flood caused by a thunderstorm upstream rushed through the swimming area. Authorities have said the family had no warning.

Another flash flood just over a week later trapped 17 hikers in a scenic canyon in southern Arizona. Rescuers had to pluck some of the hikers, including a 4-year-old boy, from a mountain creek swollen by floodwaters Sunday. Everyone survived.

Those who knew Hector Garnica have said he was a hardworking family man whose positive demeanor was widely known at the numerous restaurants that employed him as a cook over the years.

Maria Raya Garcia was known for her kind manner and dedication to her restaurant kitchen job.

"I thought it was like a dream; I was hoping it wasn't real," said Ray Lopez, kitchen manager at El Encanto restaurant, where she worked.

Last week, he recalled Raya Garcia's joy when he allowed her to take her birthday weekend off despite a busy schedule. Lopez said he and the rest of the restaurant staff are deeply upset by the loss of their friend and co-worker.

"I'm OK when I'm here at home," Lopez said. "When I go there and she's not there — that's when I have a hard time."

Image: Funerals
Hearses carrying family members who were killed in a flash flood leave St. Patrick Catholic Church on July 25, 2017 in Scottsdale.Matt York / AP

Four other relatives survived the flash flood. Esthela Abigail Atondo was rescued, and her aunt Sonia Atondo said her niece still isn't talking about what happened.

"I saw her and hugged her, but she didn't say anything," said the elder Atondo, who traveled from Seattle for the funeral. "She didn't want to say anything."