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Men killed in slot canyon flash flood remembered as 'extraordinary'

Posted at 10:49 PM, May 22, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-24 18:58:14-04

KANE COUNTY, Utah — Two men from Ohio were found dead in a canyon near the border of Utah and Arizona after their families reported they were overdue from a hiking trip.

On Sunday morning, a search and rescue team member who also works as a backcountry guide reported that a group who was hiking found a dead man just south of the Paria River and Buckskin Gulch junction, about half a mile into Arizona.

WATCH: Video shows crews being lowered into the canyon to perform a recovery mission

Buckskin gulch recovery video

After a joint recovery mission between multiple agencies in Utah and Arizona, officials started to work on attempting to identify the body.

On Monday morning, officials from the Westchester Ohio Police Department contacted Kane County to report family said two men from the area were hiking in the Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch areas and were overdue from their trip.

With photos from the family, the recovered body was identified as 65-year-old Gary York from West Chester Township, Ohio.

As the family reported two men had gone on the trip, a search was initiated to try and locate the other hiker.

By Monday evening, teams found the body of the second hiker, identified as 72-year-old John Walter from Kettering, Ohio. Walter and York were brothers-in-law.

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Gary York (left) and John Walter (right)

Officials report that an investigation suggests a flash flood caught the pair by surprise while they were hiking and swept them away in a "rushing wall of water."

York was carried close to 10 miles down the canyon by the flood waters and Walter was swept about seven to eight miles downstream.

“We lost just extraordinary men," said Corey Messer, Walter's daughter and York's niece. “My dad was one of the best men I’ve ever known."

Messer says her dad and his brother-in-law were incredibly close. She said her mother died in April, and York was trying to cheer Walter up with one of their hiking trips together.

“When mom passed, my Uncle Gary came to town and said: ‘John, I’ve got the deal of a lifetime, and I think we should take our trip of a lifetime,'" Messer said. "And that’s how this came up — this was really his first real adventure of his retirement traveling plans.”

Messer says the two men will be missed sorely as "pillars" in both their families and their community.

“If somebody needed help... they would be the first to pitch in," she said. "They were just great human beings, and life will never be the same without them."

In speaking with Kane County Sheriff's Deputy Rod Willis said prior to 2023, the agency hadn't seen any deaths in that area in 20 years — but now there have been four just this year.

Willis said this spring weather and snowpack have led to an unprecedented and heartbreaking year.

In March, two hikers from Florida were killed and one was rescued in the same canyon as flood waters swept through the area.

Experts previously told FOX 13 News that at over 20 miles, Buckskin Gulch is considered to be one of the most dangerous slot canyons in the U.S., with very few access or extraction points along the route.

FOX 13 News will update this story online and on the air as more information becomes available.