July 21, 2011 in Nation/World

Trio swept over falls feared dead

Visitors crossed safety barrier at Yosemite
Gosia Wozniacka Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

In this July 2010 photo, the top of Vernal Fall in Yosemite National Park in California is shown. Three visitors were presumed dead after being swept over the waterfall.
(Full-size photo)

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. – Young tourists above one of Yosemite National Park’s beautiful and perilous waterfalls were trying to pose for a picture. Instead they burned a horrifying image into the memories of everyone who saw.

A man and a woman crossed a metal barricade above the 317-foot Vernal Fall on Tuesday, making their way over slick granite to a rock in the middle of the swift Merced River.

The woman slipped. The man reached for her and fell in. Another man in their group of about 10 tried to help but fell into the water as well. Other hikers, including several children in their group, could only watch as the rushing water swept all three students over the edge.

The couple who were on the rock hugged each other tightly as they disappeared.

“Everyone was screaming,” witness Jake Bibee said. “People were praying. What I will take away with me forever is the look on that grown man’s face as he was floating down that river knowing he was going to die and nobody could help them.”

A single sign in English warns visitors not to cross the barricade or swim in the waters above the falls. Bibee said other hikers had shouted that it wasn’t safe to go into the rushing river.

The three students are presumed dead; rescuers continued searching for their bodies Wednesday. The Yosemite Search and Rescue unit identified them as Hormiz David, 22, of Modesto; Ninos Yacoub, 27, of Turlock; and Ramina Badal, 21, of Manteca.

The victims were part of a close-knit community of Christians from the Middle East who have been settling in California’s Central Valley during the past century.

They were members of the Mar Gewargis Parish in Ceres. The church is part of the Assyrian Church of the East.

“It’s very shocking to our community,” said the Rev. Auchana Kanoun, who leads the parish.

The top of Vernal Fall is always treacherous, and is especially so this year because of the record snowmelt now under way. A metal barricade separates hikers from the river where it pools before crashing over the precipice.

Bibee said other members of the victims’ group also had been on the wrong side of the barricade when he reached the top of the Mist Trail. One man, he said, was posing near the waterfall with a screaming young girl in his arms while a teenage girl snapped photographs.

“People became unglued on this guy,” Bibee said. “They said, ‘You know what man, get your ass back over here.’ ”

Bibee, a 28-year-old country western musician who has hiked the Mist Trail many times, said that before the victims were swept away he had spent a good part of his hike explaining to his companion how dangerous the wilderness can be.

“People come up here and they think it’s Disneyland,” he said.

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