Like they had done many times before, Leslie and Adam Jez packed their camper and headed for Arkansas' Albert Pike Recreation Area. But instead of leaving Friday, they and their 3-year-old met up with family a day earlier — a decision that proved fatal.
Flash floods pushed a torrent of water through their campsite on the edge of the Ouachita National Forest before dawn, killing at least 19 people including Leslie and her mother, Sherry Wade. Adam survived, but authorities haven't said whether their child, Kaden, was among the victims.
State police said one person is still missing, and search teams plan to resume their work Monday morning.
"(Kaden's) only vocabulary when it wasn't 'mama' and 'daddy' consisted of tractors and horses," Leslie's grandfather, former Arkansas legislator Charles "Bubba" Wade, said Sunday. "I can just see her holding the baby" during the flood, Wade said of his granddaughter, his words choked with grief.
No one has been found alive since Friday. The last two bodies recovered — one Saturday and the other Sunday — were found among the tangled piles of tents, trees, children's toys and clothing in the rugged, heavily wooded terrain along the Little Missouri River.
Wade said camping trips and the outdoors were commonplace for his large family. His children and grandchildren went to Boy and Girl Scout events in the Albert Pike Recreation Area, and Kaden and Leslie rode horses and rounded up cattle together.
"Little Kaden had been up here on my 81st birthday, sitting on my lap with cowboy boots on," said Wade, who spent 18 years as a state lawmaker and introduced the legislation that created the nearby Millwood State Park.
Adam Jez, an electrician, and his wife, a college student, decided to begin their camping trip early because he had to work Saturday. The floods descended on their campsite only a few hours after they arrived.
Floodwaters rose as swiftly as 8 feet per hour, pouring through the remote valley with such force that they peeled asphalt from roads. Cabins along the river banks were severely damaged, and mobile homes were tossed on their sides.
Forecasters had warned of the approaching danger in the area during the night, but campers could easily have missed the advisories because the area is isolated.
"It was a real tragedy for our family and for everyone else who chose that spot," Wade said. "I'm just speechless."
Fifty miles of river and tributaries have been combed at least twice by search crews, some places three or four times, said Forest Service Incident Commander Mike Quesinberry. But the terrain has made it impossible to bring in heavy equipment to unlock some of the piles. One measured 30 feet high and more than 100 feet long, he said.
"This is an area that's so rugged, there's so much debris ... you can't get to it," said Arkansas State Police Capt. Mike Fletcher.
But he said there are no plans to end the search.
"We'll continue the search as long as we feel there may be someone in there," he said.
Wade didn't blame anyone for the tragedy, calling it "an act of God." But he said there should be a better way of informing campers of such danger, perhaps through an electronic warning system.
"Gosh darn, I know everyone regrets the loss, but everything can be improved upon," he said. "There can be a better warning system, whether it's three in the morning or three in the afternoon."
Among many families of the missing and dead, the stages of grief played out over the weekend, as heartache turned to anger.
"Today, it's mostly the question of 'why?' and trying to understand," said local pastor Ted DeWeese. "Everything that was a help yesterday is an intrusion today."
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