A wall of water swept away two vehicles carrying women and children in a Utah-Arizona border town yesterday, killing at least eight people and leaving five others missing in a community that served as a home base for polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs, authorities say. Three people survived as the flash flooding washed the vehicles several hundred yards downstream about 5pm, says Kevin Barlow, the assistant fire chief in Hildale, Utah. The flood "obviously caught these people off guard," he says. "Witnesses say they were backing out of it trying to get away from it and it still swept them in." The fire chief says the rescue effort was ongoing through the night but scaled back because of treacherous conditions in the sister towns of Hildale and Colorado City, Ariz.
The floods came after heavy rains fell in the canyons just north of the towns, sending waves of water barreling through the streets. The National Weather Service had issued a flash flood warning earlier in the day, leading nearby Zion National Park to close all slot canyons as a precaution. Members of the polygamous sect are believed to be discouraged from watching TV, using the Internet, or having much contact with the outside world, and Barlow says he doesn't know if residents were aware of the flood warning. A Hildale resident tells the Salt Lake Tribune that the community is devastated. "It leaves your heart hurting," he says. "I'm just trying to soak it all in." (Read more flash floods stories.)