The loss of three young adults swept over a waterfall in Yosemite National Park this week is a tragedy for their families and for the church group they were a part of. But it’s also a cautionary tale for tourists wanting to get just a bit closer to the power and beauty of nature – especially at a time when heavy winter snowpacks have meant swollen, rushing streams and rivers.
According to Yosemite officials, the flow over Yosemite, Vernal, Nevada, and Bridalveil Falls is more typical of June – the result of a snowpack that was more than three times the average for late spring.
“The Merced River … is still running at spring conditions with significant water levels resulting in a swift, dangerous current,” park officials warned in a statement following Tuesday’s accident. “Visitors are urged to exercise extreme caution around all water in Yosemite National Park. Park rivers and streams have been running at higher than normal levels for this time of year, and will remain high for several weeks.”
So far this year, six people have died in water-related accidents around Yosemite. Two hikers drowned in the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir on June 29, and a hiker slipped and fell into the Merced River while on the Mist Trail on May 13.
Other tourist spots around the West have experienced accidents related to water and snow as well.
In Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park last week, a man jumped over a wall at the edge of the steep caldera, slipped on packed snow, and slid head-first 300 feet below the rim. It took rescuers five hours to bring him out.
Four family members died in Wyoming earlier this week when a road collapsed and sent their car into a raging creek. In Utah, a 15-year-old girl died after heavy rains caused a huge sinkhole to open on a highway, swallowing a vehicle and causing her father's SUV to careen off the road.
The three people swept over the 317-foot Vernal Fall in Yosemite this week, and now presumed dead – two men and woman – were members of St. George's Church in California’s Central Valley, part of an Assyrian Christian denomination.
According to witnesses, the three college students ignored warning signs and climbed over a guard rail to have their photo taken on a rock in the middle of the river. When Ramina Badal slipped, Homiz David and then Ninos Yacoub tried to help. All three were swept over the fall.
During summer months, some 1,500 a day hike Yosemite’s Mist Trail to Vernal Fall. The Fresno Bee newspaper reports that at least 17 people have died by accidentally plunging over Vernal Fall since park officials started keeping records in 1924, more than any other waterfall in Yosemite.
“This will be a chance for us to re-educate our young people about how valuable life is," said Charmain Morad-Daniel, a member of the Assyrian National Council of Stanislaus County. "It's a tragedy for the Assyrian community because these are role models and they're active in youth activities through the church."
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.