ANITA SNOW, Associated Press
CLARICE SILBER, Associated Press
CAVE CREEK, Ariz. (AP) — Maria Raya-Garcia almost didn’t get the weekend off to celebrate her birthday beside a popular swimming hole in Arizona.
The bosses at El Encanto Mexican restaurant in Cave Creek, a touristy Wild West-style town outside Phoenix, didn’t want the popular prep cook to be gone during their busiest days, but they finally relented.
Raya-Garcia was celebrating her 27th birthday Saturday, lounging with family members in a rocky canyon north of Phoenix when a flash flood roared down a placid creek and swept them away.
Searchers later found her lifeless body, along with those of her three young children, her mother, sister and other members of her family.
In mere seconds, Mother Nature had ravaged the extended family with roots in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, leaving nine confirmed dead. Authorities say they believe a body found Wednesday is that of her husband, Hector Miguel Garnica.
The tragedy tore a hole in the community of about 5,000 where Raya-Garcia lived with her husband and children, a 45-minute drive through the desert from Phoenix.
The Rev. Jess Ty, pastor at Our Lady of Joy Catholic Church in the nearby community of Carefree, where Raya-Garcia and her husband worshipped, called on parishioners to pray for the family’s relatives as they mourned their losses and awaited word on Garnica.
The couple’s children, Hector Daniel, 7, Mia, 5, and Emily, 3, were baptized at the mission-style, blush-colored adobe church set among prickly pear and saguaro cactuses.
“It’s a very close community, so people have been really affected,” said Laura Hicks, the church’s operations director.
People who knew the family were so upset that El Encanto, where Raya-Garcia worked, closed Monday, Hicks said.
Employees erected a makeshift memorial at the restaurant’s blue- and white-tiled entry arch. By Tuesday, a group of white candles had melted down and bouquets of wilted flowers stuck out of the wrought-iron gate.
“She was an excellent employee, really,” El Encanto manager Richard Oakley said of Raya-Garcia. “We were preparing her to be a kitchen manager.”
Raya-Garcia had worked there two or three years and her husband, also trained as a cook, had a job in the past along with one of their cousins, Oakley said.
“She asked for two days off for her birthday, and we resisted at first because it was a weekend,” Oakley recalled, choking up as he recounted his last conversation with Raya-Garcia. “This was a real treat for them to get away for the weekend.”
Nearby at The Horny Toad, an Old West-style bar and restaurant where her husband worked, general manager Tom Price said he broke down Sunday when Hector Garnica’s sister told him about the deadly flash flood.
Price said he had known Garnica since the cook was 12 and worked with him on and off at the restaurant over the past eight years.
“I have nothing bad to say about him, you won’t find anyone in this town that has anything bad to say about the guy,” Price said.
Garnica’s cousin Iris Garnica said working in restaurants was his passion and led him to jobs in most every eatery in town.
Down the road at Black Mountain Elementary School, where the couple’s eldest child, Hector Daniel, attended classes, drama teacher Berta Cortes choked up when she recalled the little boy who was about to enter second grade. His sister Mia was supposed to start at the school for the first time when classes resume in August.
“He would go up and hug you,” Cortes said Tuesday as she sat in the school’s theater classroom, “but he was a shy boy.”
The drama teacher said she chose Hector Daniel, also known as Daniel or Danny, to be the elephant colonel in a first-grade production of a play based on “The Jungle Book.” He led six other students clad in elephant ears and gray shirts in a song.
“You are going to be the leader,” said Cortes, as she reminisced about telling Hector about his role. “He was so proud.”
Besides the boy’s immediate family, the flood killed Raya-Garcia’s mother, Celia Garcia Castaneda, 60; Raya-Garcia’s sister, Maribel Raya-Garcia, 24; her brother, Javier Raya-Garcia, 19; her niece Erica Raya-Garcia, 2; and Jonathan Leon, 13, a grandson of Garcia Castaneda.
They were among about 50 members of an extended family who had come to the Phoenix area over some 20 years from the region of Leon, Mexico, looking for better job opportunities, said Hector Garnica’s second cousin Jessica Mandujano.
Within that group, Garnica and Raya-Garcia often hosted parties and other gatherings for the entire family, the cousin said.
“Of course we’re all affected,” Mandujano said. “It’s still hard to realize that happened.”
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