SALT LAKE CITY — Two men from Tampa were found dead after floodwaters poured into a slot canyon near the Utah-Arizona border, endangering three groups of hikers who had to be hoisted out by helicopter.
Kane County Sheriff's Lt. Allen Alldredge said the first man who was found dead, later identified as Bill Romaniello of Tampa, was among a group of three men from Tampa hiking south to Lees Ferry across the Utah-Arizona border. Another man in the group, Ed Smith, was rescued and taken to the hospital, where he was being treated for hypothermia and bodily injury after days of exposure.
Smith reportedly told authorities that on the morning of March 11, his group was hit by a flash flood that swept them downstream. According to a release from the Kane County Sheriff's Office, Smith and Watson were able to get free from the flood and regroup. They tried to search for Romaniello but couldn't find him. Smith and Watson eventually continued moving downstream to try and get help.
The sheriff's office said Watson had a leg injury from the first day and wasn't able to continue after a while. Smith reportedly got Watson "situated" before continuing the quest for help.
Authorities found a second body on Wednesday afternoon across the Arizona border. It was Watson. Because he was found in Arizona, the sheriff's office said his body was turned over to the Coconino County Coroner's Office for investigation.
The Orthopaedic Medical Group of Tampa Bay, of which both Watson and Romaniello were part, released the following statement after news of their deaths:
"Orthopaedic Medical Group of Tampa Bay family would like to thank the community for the prayers and perpetual hope of positivity over the last few days.
Tragedy has hit the practice, and it is with profound sadness that we share the loss of Dr. Jeffrey Watson and William Romaniello, ATC, two pillars of the practice that leave an incredible legacy and monumental void in the hearts of everyone that knew them.
We kindly ask everyone to be respectful of the privacy of their families and friends in the coming days."
Alldredge said authorities received a call Monday from the spouse of a hiker who had not returned home from a hike they began Friday. The hikers were on a multiday trek from Wire Pass to Lees Ferry through Buckskin Gulch's sandstone features that include multiple narrow slot canyons.
The "atmospheric river” storms that swept parts of the western United States last weekend raised the water level in the canyons before additional floodwaters spilled into the slot canyons early this week. Authorities continued to search for the missing hiker as weather forecasts predicted additional rain Wednesday.
"We believe these guys were prepared, they had the gear, they had everything you would normally need to do this hike in normal conditions," Alldredge said. "It's just, conditions weren't normal and just caught people by surprise."
Two Utah Department of Public Safety helicopters and another hiker helped locate the second body found on Wednesday. After being called for the initial group of three, the Department of Public Safety helicopters helped extract 11 other people Tuesday who were stuck in frigid floodwaters and had called for help.
Alldredge said in total throughout the last week, first responders assisted 18 people, including the three men from Tampa.