Rescue crews took to kayaks, horseback and ATVs on Saturday to resume the desperate search for about two dozen campers still missing after flash floods swept through a popular campground, killing at least 17 people.
The pre-dawn Friday surge along the Caddo and Little Missouri rivers caught sleeping campers in and around the Albert Pike Recreation Area by surprise, leaving them little time to try to scramble in the darkness to higher ground and safety. The last person found alive was rescued late Friday morning.
Arkansas State Police Capt. Mike Fletcher said there were about two dozen people still unaccounted for as of Saturday morning — a number far lower than some had feared. By one estimate, there were some 300 people in and around the campground when the floods swept through, and a call center fielded inquiries about 73 people who hadn't been accounted for as of Friday night.
Fletcher said authorities had identified 16 of the 17 bodies found, but that they wouldn't be identified publicly until their families had been notified. There were children among the dead.
The search was expected to take several more days, or even weeks, and anguished family members of the missing who gathered at a church in nearby Lodi on Saturday could only wait helplessly. Some cried and embraced one another, and some held their head in their hands.
"They're just devastated. The time for shock has probably gone and now it's just anxiety building. They're beginning to fear the worst," said Graig Cowart, the pastor of the Pilgrim Rest Landmark Missionary Baptist Church. He said there were 24 people still unaccounted for Saturday morning.
Brigette Williams, an American Red Cross spokeswoman, said among the grieving are a couple of grandfathers who know they've lost grandchildren and are waiting to hear about others.
Cell phone service and visibility from the air in the heavily wooded area are very poor, hampering search efforts. Portable cell towers were dispatched to the area in the hope that stranded survivors would be able to call for help.
Crews on horseback and ATV returned to the craggy Ouachita mountains to look for possible survivors, as searchers in kayaks and canoes explored the tangled brush along the river banks for bodies.
Debris hung from tree branches 25 feet above the bend in the Little Missouri River that the camping area straddles, and rock climbers searched the valley's steep and craggy terrain. It would be difficult for someone to signal for help because of the rugged and remote nature of the area being searched, some 75 miles west of Little Rock.
Mitchell Gatlin, a volunteer searcher from Langley, said he didn't find anyone on Friday or Saturday. He said he was amazed at the destruction wrought by the floods, saying it looked like a powerful tornado had passed through.
U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell were taken on a tour of the devastated area and were expected to address the media later Saturday. President Barack Obama called Gov. Mike Beebe on Saturday to offer his condolences and to offer federal assistance.
Floodwaters rose as swiftly as 8 feet per hour, poring through the remote valley with such force that it peeled asphalt from roads and bark off trees. Cabins dotting the river banks were severely damaged. Mobile homes lay on their sides. Some described the quick rise of the water as a tsunami in a valley.
Tabitha Clarke, a National Weather Service hydrologist in Little Rock, said Saturday that the wall of water that swept through the campground could have been higher than the 23.4 feet reported Friday because the valley in that area is so narrow. The nearest river gauge, some 4.5 miles downstream, showed a 20 1/2-foot rise in a four-hour period early Friday.
"It would have been even worse where they were," Clarke said.
Authorities prepared for a long search effort and said bodies may have been washed away. The last body found Friday night — the 16th confirmed dead — was found some 8 miles downstream from the campground.
"This is not a one- or two-day thing," said Gary Fox, a retired emergency medical technician who was helping identify the dead and compile lists of those who were unaccounted for. "This is going to be a week or two- or three-week recovery."
The rolling floodwaters would have sucked debris — including bodies — under the surface of the Little Missouri River and could have pinned people beneath rocks and trees that line the banks of the normally docile stream, Clarke said.
Williams, the American Red Cross spokeswoman, estimated Friday that there were up to 300 people in the area when the floods swept through.
Forecasters had warned of the approaching danger in the area during the night, but campers could easily have missed those advisories because the area is isolated.
Denise Gaines said she was startled awake in her riverfront cabin by a noise that sounded like fluttering wings. She saw water rushing under the cabin door.
"I thought it must have been an angel that woke me up," she said. She woke up the six others in her cabin and started packing her things.
Gaines, who lives in Baton Rouge, La., had been through violent weather before with Hurricane Gustav.
"We could feel the cabin shaking," said her fiance, Adam Fontenot.
After the cabin filled with chest-deep water, the group clung to a tree and each other outside for more than an hour. Then the water dropped quickly, several feet in just a few minutes.
As the water receded, the devastation emerged: Vehicles were piled atop each other, and bodies were in the water. The group sought shelter in a nearby cabin higher off the ground. They were eventually rescued in a Jeep.
Associated Press writers Justin Juozapavicius in Langley, Tony Winton in the Albert Pike Recreation Area and Jill Zeman Bleed in Little Rock contributed to this report.
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