Written By: Shane
The following story was
compiled from various interview's, television news reports, Associated Press
news releases, local news releases, personal experience in Antelope Canyon
and other sources.
In 1997, the effects of the
Pacific weather system known as "El Niņo" impacted the Colorado Plateau. In
August of that year, storms threatened almost daily and weather reports show
nearly an inch of rain fell on some days. For a region that gets an average of
nine inches of rain a year this was astonishing.
At 3:30 p.m. on August 12, 1997, officers with the Arizona Department of
Public Safety responded to reports of a road washout on Route 98 near mile
marker 306. The water flowed for some time, and officers stood watch to make
sure no one would attempt to cross the flooded wash. Meanwhile, the storm
responsible for dumping the rain moved to Le Chee Rock, about 15 miles away
from narrow Antelope Canyon. The slot canyon is extremely popular with tourist
and photographers. The storm unleashed rain onto the slickrock below, and the
water funneled into the wash that runs through Antelope Canyon. The water was
the consistency of a chocolate milk shake, and contained debris such as logs
Francisco "Poncho" Quintana, 28 years of age, knew what the sudden roar meant
- flash flood! But the ladders leading out of the narrow canyon were 100 feet
away. Terrified tourists watched from the rim of the canyon as the wall of
water slammed into the 12 people in the bottom of the canyon and swept them
The chocolate brown water was waist-high before Quintana was able to wedge
himself and two tourists against the wall behind an elephant ear shaped rock
outcropping. A muscular 5-foot-9 former construction worker, Quintana pushed
as hard as he could, trying to anchor his feet in the canyon's sandy bottom
and hold the two tourists fast to the sandstone wall. He turned his head to
see two men flying towards him, their arms and legs thrashing in panic. The
men tumbled into Quintana's group and he lost his grip. It was the last he saw
of the people he was trying to save. Blinded by mud washed into his eyes, he
careened downstream, crashing against the smooth sandstone walls, which range
from 3 feet to 20 feet wide. Each time he went under, he didn't know whether
he'd surface again.
Quintana survived by remaining calm and concentrating on staying on his back
and keeping his feet pointed downstream, just as white water rafters are
taught. His hand struck a rock and he grabbed it. He doesn't remember what
happened after that.
Quintana was found on a ledge a quarter-mile from where the hikers were first
hit by the flash flood at a location where the water struck a canyon wall and
shot 30 feet into the air. Quintana had the look and manner of a survivor of a
plane crash. Stripped bare of his clothes by the raging water, completely
covered in bruises and left temporarily blind by silt trapped under his
eyelids, Quintana would be the only survivor. He did not understand why he was
Quintana had worked for Trek America, which offers U.S. outdoor tours catering
to young Europeans. This tour set out from Denver, and stopped at Lake Powell,
along the Arizona-Utah state line. Five members of the tour accompanied
Quintana into Antelope Canyon where it becomes a deep, quarter-mile-long slot
so narrow you can hop across its top at points. The undulating canyon has been
carved into the pink-swirled sandstone by countless flash floods. The group
had already toured the canyon earlier in the day, but several members of the
group wanted to go back and use up the rest of their film. They planned to
hike to a hole in the rock known as "Eye of the Eagle" arch. Quintana led them
down, but less than 100 yards into the deep slot canyon the flash flood hit.
A severe thunderstorm warning had been issued for the area two hours before
the flood, but the spot where the hikers were swept away got only a trace of
rain. Some finger pointing occurred over whether the hikers should have been
warned of the danger. A local resident who collects admission from canyon
hikers warned the tour group about the danger of flash flooding because of the
Within hours of the flood, dozens of curious Page, Arizona residents made
their way out to Antelope Canyon, and not soon after, several media
helicopters and trucks arrived. Less than two days later, 167 media personnel,
from the regional, national and international level formed the press crew that
followed and reported on the recovery effort. Personnel from the Grand Canyon
was called in to coordinate the helicopter traffic; there was a lot of
It took sometime, given the hoards of people and the frenzy that ensued, to
develop a list of the people inside the canyon at the time of the flood.
Officers checked the cars left behind and spoke with members of the Trek
America tour to finalize a list.
Those missing were seven French citizens, two U.S. residents, a Briton and a
Swede. As this occurred, the 10 and 12-year-old daughters of Paul and Anita
Lohr, from France, grew upset back at their hotel room in Page, not knowing
why their parents had yet to return. The couple, it turned out, drowned in the
slot canyon. When the two French girls sought help from hotel employees, they
could not find someone who spoke French. A translator was called in and the
girls were put with a French family to help comfort them.
Crews dispatched in the effort to find survivors or recover bodies could not
do much at first because the water kept flowing and continued to flow until
4:00 a.m. the next morning. In the following days, crews worked in Antelope
Canyon and on Lake Powell, six miles downstream from the slot canyon. Numerous
police and cadaver dog teams came to assist, and the messy, traumatizing
effort lasted a full week.
During this time Antelope Canyon practically became a household name in
France, as the French media filed numerous reports on the tragedy that left
seven of its citizens dead. In a strange twist, the tragedy has boosted the
popularity of the canyon.
Beatrice Aline, 20, of France, was the first body recovered in a side
tributary of the canyon. Eight of the victims drowned and their bodies were
recovered from Lake Powell. Two of the victims have never been located,
although the debris field is still occasionally searched in hope that they
will someday be located.
In 2004, KSL News in Salt Lake City did a three-part series on the Antelope
Canyon flash flood and its aftermath. This video is the complete news special.