TONTO BASIN, Ariz. – More than a hundred community members from Pinetop, Arizona, gathered in Tonto Basin on Sunday morning to search for a missing 6-year-old girl swept away in a flash flood.
Willa Rawlings was one of three children left inside a truck that was inundated by surging water after relatives attempted to drive through a crossing at Tonto Creek.
Two 5-year-olds, Colby and Austin Rawlings, were found dead Saturday.
Lacey and Daniel Rawlings were in the truck with the kids when friends and relatives say they tried to cross the creek at a crossing that was closed earlier that day due to flooding caused by a major winter storm.
Lacey and Daniel Rawlings are the parents of Willa and Colby. Austin, their niece, is the daughter of Daniel’s brother, Jay Rawlings.
Nathan Sherwood, Lacey’s brother, flew in from Houston on Friday to help with the search efforts. He cried as he spoke to the crowd of more than a hundred volunteers before search efforts began Sunday.
“I cannot thank you enough,” he said. “This is about the only light in this dark situation.”
Volunteers trudged in small groups through the muddy brush, toward the creek, to search for the missing girl, who was last seen wearing jeans and a purple jacket.
Among the volunteers was David Merrill, who came with a group of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He said he would have come to help regardless, as he has known the Rawlings for more than 30 years.
“The Rawlings family are a fixture,” Merrill said. “They’re the salt of the earth and they have done so much. Little League, school … volunteers for football … whatever it took, they’ve been in the middle of it.”
Merrill became emotional as he spoke about the community’s efforts to help in the search.
“The whole community’s rallied around them to show their love and support during this tragedy,” he said.
Authorities also continued to search Sunday for the 6-year-old girl, the only one of nine family members unaccounted for on Sunday.
The search included multiple police agencies with aircraft, kayakers, ATVs and rescue dogs working along the creek.
On Friday afternoon, six members of the Rawlings family – two adults and four children – were rescued when the vehicle was overcome by water in the creek, according to the Gila County Sheriff’s Office. The three young children had stayed in the vehicle.
The Rawlings family members are from various areas of Arizona and were in the area visiting relatives for the Thanksgiving holiday, according to Lt. Virgil Dodd of the Gila County Sheriff’s Office.
Colby’s body was found at 8:45 a.m. Saturday, about 3 miles downstream from where the vehicle became stuck, according to sheriff’s officials. Austin’s body was found at 11:14 a.m.
A GoFundMe page was established for “the Rawlings Family Accident” on Saturday afternoon. More than $10,000 was raised by Sunday morning.
The Gila County Sheriff’s Office said it received a report just after 4 p.m. Friday of a vehicle stuck in the creek near the closed crossing.
There were barricades across the road at the time, and signs that say do not cross when flooded, Dodd said.
One adult and four other children were found stranded on an island and rescued from the area via helicopters, according to Gila County Sheriff’s Office. Another adult was rescued from the shore.
Rescue personnel located the vehicle, described as a military-style truck, in the creek Friday night about 600 to 1,000 yards away from the crossing. But they were not able to remove it until Saturday, Dodd said. No one was found inside.
It was unclear how the children got from the vehicle into the creek.
Tonto Basin is about 90 miles northeast of downtown Phoenix.
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