SANTA FE, N.M. — A rush of water at least 20 feet high raged down a narrow canyon in the pre-dawn hours Saturday, taking with it four young Boy Scouts who had just begun a 12-day journey through the rugged northeastern New Mexico backcountry.
Three of the boys, between the ages of 14 and 17, were able to grab solid ground or objects and crawl to safety, according to New Mexico State Police. One boy, however, was found dead about a mile downstream.
Officials from state police and Philmont Scout Ranch – which hosted the outing for the troop and thousands of other Scouts throughout the 200-square-mile ranch – declined to identify the boy or provide any other information about his troop. They said they are waiting until his family is notified.
The Scouts set up camp about 15 miles from base camp and had just begun a journey of between 60 and 100 miles. The troop signed up for the 12-day hike two years earlier, said ranch comptroller Steve Nelson, and they had been preparing ever since. He would not say whether the troop was from New Mexico or elsewhere, but troops from all over the country use the ranch.
Beginning around 3 a.m. Saturday, multiple storms moved quickly through areas of Colfax County where the ranch is located, according to the National Weather Service.
Camp officials and meteorologists said that at least two inches fell in a short amount of time, and nearby state Highway 64 was closed due to mud slides, debris on the roadway and flooded bridges, they said.
New Mexico State Police spokesman Sgt. Chad Pierce said the troop set up camp on an embankment about 20 feet above a small creek in North Ponil Canyon. The flash flooding in the area sent so much water, so fast, that Pierce said it’s possible water rose higher than 20 feet above where it normally runs. He estimated the creek is normally about 3 feet wide and 1 foot deep.
The four boys were swept away around 4:30 a.m., he said, and state police were contacted around 9:35 a.m.
They found the boy’s body around 11 a.m., about one mile downstream from the campsite, state police said.
Pierce said the flood washed out the entire camp, but only the four boys were swept away. The troop consisted of eight Scouts, one adult Scout ranger and three adult crew leaders.
“More than anything, it was just good fortune is what saved most of them, I believe,” Pierce said. “It just went through, and they grabbed on to whatever they could.”
The ranch put out a statement lamenting the boy’s death and the trauma for his peers.
“This is a very difficult time for our entire Scouting family,” the ranch said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and we are supporting them in any way that we can.”
Pierce said state police investigators are working to find as much information about the tragedy as possible and will provide it to ranch officials “to better prepare them should something like this happen again.”
Nelson said about 5,000 Scouts are roaming the mountains near the ranch at any given time, hiking or backpacking in a number of different programs and routes. He said he has been on the phone constantly since Saturday, fielding numerous calls from parents and others concerned about their children.
A Facebook post from the ranch announcing the boy’s death and expressing condolences has more than 1,000 comments from parents of Scouts describing their or their sons’ experiences at the ranch and expressing condolences to the boy’s parents.
“Prayers to the family and all at Philmont. This is very hard to read because my son and 35 others from our troop are somewhere on the trails of Philmont, right now. Please continue to keep them safe,” Elizabeth Engle DeYong said in a comment on Facebook. She later added, “Our crews are only on day 2 of their trek. It will be a long wait before we hear anything. Prayers to all your scouts.”
Nelson said ranch officials had to make a number of small changes to routes for other troops to prevent them from crossing streams or using washed-out roadways. He said the troop whose Scout was killed is safely back at base camp, and he does not recall any other incident like this one in his eight years at the ranch.
The 136,000-acre ranch, located near Cimarron, hosts around 21,000 people every summer. The camp has experienced bear attacks.
Once Scouts complete the backpacking trip, they receive the Philmont arrowhead, which is a patch for their jackets, Nelson said.
Calvin Gray, a committee member for a central-Texas-based troop, said Scouts from his area were still on their adventure elsewhere in the ranch. He said Scout leaders across the country know Philmont as one of the best sites for these excursions because of the number of different programs available for Scouts.
He said troops are given flood training before they begin their hike and receive calls from staff members if a flood is expected in their area.
He had high praise for the ranch staff .
“All over the country, there’s a huge interest in Philmont. It’s very popular,” he said, adding that the ranch is a “very well run, very efficient operation.” He said he has no concerns about sending troops there again.