In the steamy heat of an Arkansas summer, more than 200 rescue workers spread across the banks of the Little Missouri River on Saturday to search for victims and survivors of a devastating flash flood that killed at least 18 people who were caught unaware in the dark of a secluded campground, according to the New York Times.
They found two more bodies, after locating 16 on Friday, but were worried that perhaps dozens more might be hidden in the thick brush of a craggy gorge. Water surged by 20 feet between midnight and dawn.
As the engorged river — which surged more than 20 feet in a matter of hours early Friday morning — began to recede, some rescuers were able to navigate a 20-mile stretch of river by kayak, canoe and water scooter; others took to the woods on foot, horseback or all-terrain vehicles.
Helicopters thundered above the Albert Pike campgrounds in the Ouachita Mountains, about 75 miles west of Little Rock.
Government officials met with families of victims and said that state, local and federal authorities would continue to devote all available resources until the missing were located.
“There’s not much you can say,” Gov. Mike Beebe said during a news conference in Little Rock. “You try to be whatever comfort you can. They’re virtually in a state of shock.”
Earlier in the day, the governor said, he spoke with President Obama, who offered condolences and pledged federal assistance. An official in President Obama’s cabinet said that the local authorities did what they could to warn campers of the flood, but vowed to review procedures.
While rescuers discovered two more bodies in the dense, muddy terrain on Saturday, family members of victims and those still waiting to hear from loved ones gathered at Pilgrim Rest Landmark Missionary Baptist Church in Lodi, about 15 miles from the campground. Some had survived by clinging to branches in pitch darkness.
“People have lost multiple family members,” the Rev. Graig Cowart said. “It’s hard enough to lose one. It’s just disbelief and horror, and a lot of them are walking around in a daze.”
Rev. Cowart said two families, close friends from Louisiana who were vacationing together, had each lost a husband and two children whose bodies had been recovered. One of the families was still missing a young child, he said. The wives had identified their dead relatives from digital photographs taken by rescue workers.
“It was just devastating,” Rev. Cowart recalled. “ ‘Yes, that’s my husband.’ ‘Yes, that’s my son.’ ‘Yes, that’s my son.’ How can you process losing seven family members and friends?”
One of the families spent Saturday morning clustered outside the church at a table littered with packs of Marlboros, empty coffee cups and boxes of tissues. Several declined to be interviewed, becoming hostile when asked to discuss their loved ones.
The Rev. Glen D. Harris of Amity United Methodist Church, who was comforting family members, said that waiting for news had exhausted and stressed many of them.
“The not knowing where your son or father or daughter is the worst part,” Rev. Harris said. “I don’t know which is worse, knowing or not knowing. And they’re getting to the stage where they’re angry.”
Officials said that as many as 300 people may have been camping along the Caddo and Little Missouri Rivers when the valley was deluged. But the visitors’ log that would have given a more precise number was lost in the sweeping tide, a spokesman for the Ouachita National Forest said.
The volunteer host of the campground who oversaw the log found himself having to quickly evacuate and apparently did not have time to alert other campers, said the spokesman, John C. Nichols.
“Realistically, he was probably doing what everybody else was doing,” Nichols said. “He was trying to survive.”
Governor Beebe released the names of 15 victims Saturday afternoon. They ranged in age from 2 to 69, and six were under 7, the authorities said. Most were vacationing from Louisiana and Texas.
Volunteers canvassing the area under muggy mid-90-degree heat confronted disturbing scenes. Late Friday, Carter Weston, 17, helped load 16 bodies into ambulances to be transported to a makeshift morgue in a nearby town.
“It was kind of morbid, but it had to be done,” said Carter, who lives in nearby Hot Springs.
The raging waters swept through dense terrain in the middle of the night while many campers slept. Terrified families tried to outrace the churning, swiftly rising water, some fleeing up hillsides as tents vanished and recreational vehicles crashed into cabins.
Sawyer Saulsbury, 14, said her mother awoke in the middle of the night, thinking a bear was rattling their camper. When they figured out that water was climbing up the side, they wrapped their two dogs, Luke and Shelby, in blankets and raced up a hill, Sawyer said.
Even after riding out the storm, they remained stranded in the woods through Saturday morning, she said, because roads were flooded and their camper was stuck in the mud. This made for tense moments for her grandmother Linda Saulsbury, who shared a tearful embrace with her granddaughter when they reunited in a gas station parking lot in Langley.
“I could not sit still, I could not think,” Saulsbury said.
Bill Paxton, 53, was in his cabin — which sat on eight-foot stilts above the river — drinking coffee and watching as the water outside rose six feet within 10 minutes, he said. That was when he heard a recreational vehicle crash into his front porch and saw the scared faces inside it.
On Saturday, Paxton told how he stood on his porch to help a couple, their granddaughter and their schnauzer into his cabin.
“We were just glad to be alive,” Paxton said. “We figured we were safe. We weren’t nervous.”
Paxton was one of several frustrated people at the gas station in Langley pleading with the state police on Saturday to let him up to his cabin to survey the damage. After a trooper told him the area was closed, Mr. Paxton asked to speak with a supervisor and said: “Put bullets in the gun. You’re going to have to shoot me to stop me from getting into my cabin.”
A tour of the campground revealed tent sites that looked like they had been invaded by an army of Goliaths.
Huge chunks of buckled asphalt had been deposited in drainage ditches. The back end of a white Dodge minivan was lodged four feet up a tree trunk with its nose pointed into the dirt. A camper had been stripped of its back wall, exposing neat stacks of blankets and an unsliced watermelon.
The detritus of a camping trip suddenly interrupted was everywhere: mangled folding chairs, plastic plates, waterlogged clothing, paperback novels.
At a news conference, Lincoln said: “We’ve got hope; we’re going to keep working.”
Vilsack said the Forest Service Web site and brochures advised campers to be alert to weather changes.
“This thing came very, very suddenly,” he said. “We did everything we could do under the circumstances, but we will absolutely review this, as we should after every circumstance like this.”