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Storm brings near-tragedies

4 are saved after entering washes

Feb. 15, 2003

Ben Niskanen, 18, (left) Devin Riutta, 18, and Josh Riutta, 20, try to hold on Friday to their boat in the Indian Bend Wash in Scottsdale. Below, Niskanen clutches a rope as the boat capsizes. Authorities caution that such activity is dangerous.

Boat caught in raging water In the wake of the biggest rainstorm to slam central Arizona in nearly three years, fire officials found themselves responding to two near-catastrophes involving youths, who could not resist going for boat rides in the fast-running washes.

In Glendale, a 13-year-old boy who plunged into the Skunk Creek Wash with an inflatable raft nearly drowned after he was sucked underwater for at least a minute and dragged at least 40 feet.

Glendale resident Arthur Cassel saw the accident and pulled the boy from the water near Union Hills Drive and 59th Avenue. He was listed in serious condition Friday night at Maricopa Medical Center.

"He is extremely, extremely lucky to be alive," Glendale fire Capt. Elio Pompa said.

Ben Niskanen, 18, and brothers Josh and Devin Riutta, ages 20 and 18 respectively, ended their wild ride in Tempe, only to be greeted by various police and fire agencies. They were neither injured nor cited.

"I don't regret what we did," Devin Riutta said. "It was an experience to live for. I would do it again."

However, fire and police officials did not share his bravado.

"You have to respect the water," Pompa said. "You don't want to put yourself in that situation because it's a battle you're not going to win."

And that was only part of the chaos created by Thursday's storm.

Dozens of accidents were reported, along with scattered power outages and flooded buildings. Firefighters responded to a handful of calls from motorists stranded in high water, mostly in the north Valley. A roof on two Glendale businesses was heavily damaged, forcing their closure.

Officially, 1.77 inches of rain fell at Sky Harbor International Airport from late Wednesday to early Friday, the most for a single storm since March 2000, when 2.76 inches fell over three days. The 1.42 inches measured Thursday at the airport station set a record for the date.

As much as 4 inches of rain fell in some spots outside the Valley and more than 2 feet of snow fell in the highest mountain elevations, although the storm's tropical nature kept snow levels well above normal for this time of year.

"It was an unusual storm, being so singular," said David Runyan, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Phoenix. "Usually we'll get a few rainstorms during February, but one event with so much rain is unusual."

Normally, Sky Harbor receives just under an inch of rain in February. This storm pushes the total since January to 2.34 inches, about 1.19 inches above normal for the year. That in itself hasn't happened in a long time, Runyan said.

Still, he said, Arizona would need a steady series of storms that wet to make a dent in the state's drought.

"This makes an impact on the drought, but it does not totally erase the problem," he said.

The forecast calls for fog this morning, potentially thick in some areas but burning off by midday, when skies should begin to clear. In Avondale, floodwaters 3 to 4 feet deep forced the closure of a bridge on County Route 85 over the Agua Fria River, which flows through the area east of the Phoenix Goodyear Airport, between Dysart and El Mirage roads.

"Our concern was that this much water could easily carry debris large enough to take out one of our supports," said Andrzej Wojakiewicz, Maricopa County bridge engineer.

In Peoria and Glendale, there was a heavy flow through the washes, especially in the northern parts of both cities.

During the height of the storm in Glendale, Grand Avenue was closed between 51st and 67th avenues, Pompa said. In Scottsdale, police reported 42 accidents Wednesday and an additional 48 on Thursday, about twice as many as usual.

Reproduced with permission from:
The Arizona Republic
By Dave Seibert, Carlos Miller, Shaun McKinnon, Brent Whiting and Kristina Davis
©Copyright 2002 Arizona Republic

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