YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — Young tourists above one of Yosemite National Park's beautiful and perilous waterfalls were trying to pose for a picture. Instead they burned a horrifying image into the memories of everyone who saw.
A man and a woman crossed a metal barricade above the 317-foot Vernal Fall on Tuesday, making their way over slick granite to a rock in the middle of the swift Merced River.
The woman slipped. The man reached for her and fell in. Another man in their group of about 10 tried to help but fell into the water as well. Other hikers, including several children in their group, could only watch as the rushing water swept all three students over the edge.
The couple who were on the rock hugged each other tightly as they disappeared.
"Everyone was screaming," witness Jake Bibee said. "People were praying. What I will take away with me forever is the look on that grown man's face as he was floating down that river knowing he was going to die and nobody could help them."
A single sign in English warns visitors not to cross the barricade or swim in the waters above the falls. Bibee said other hikers had shouted that it wasn't safe to go into the rushing river.
The three students are presumed dead; rescuers continued searching for their bodies Wednesday. The Yosemite Search and Rescue unit identified them as Hormiz David, 22, of Modesto; Ninos Yacoub, 27, of Turlock; and Ramina Badal, 21, of Manteca.
The victims were part of a close-knit community of Christians from the Middle East who have been settling in California's Central Valley during the past century.
They were members of the Mar Gewargis Parish in Ceres, where a prayer service was planned Wednesday evening. The church is part of the Assyrian Church of the East.
"It's very shocking to our community," said the Rev. Auchana Kanoun, who leads the parish.
Ninos Piro said outside the Mar Zaia Cathedral in Modesto that he was friends with all three victims, whom he knew from church.
David was studying music production at Modesto Junior College, Yacoub was studying chemistry at California State University, Stanislaus, and Badal attended the University of San Francisco and had hoped to become a doctor, Piro said.
"They were honest, righteous Christians trying to live their lives the right way," said Piro, 36, of Turlock. "They were trying to be a good influence on everyone around them. That's why you see everyone so torn up around here."
The top of Vernal Fall is always treacherous, and is especially so this year because of the record snowmelt now under way. A metal barricade separates hikers from the river where it pools before crashing over the precipice.
On Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of tourists climbed the 1.5-mile Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Fall after the path was reopened.
Julie Ehrler of Modesto was on the trail with her mother-in-law but felt too uneasy to go all the way to the top of the falls. She called the loss of the three victims tragic.
"It makes you stop and think and not do silly things. I can understand they wanted to get close to it because it's a beautiful site. But you have to be respectful toward nature."
Bibee said other members of the victims' group also had been on the wrong side of the barricade when he reached the top of the Mist Trail. One man, he said, was posing near the waterfall with a screaming young girl in his arms while a teenage girl snapped photographs.
"People became unglued on this guy," Bibee said. "They said, `You know what man, get your ass back over here.'"
As that man walked back, Bibee said, the doomed couple made their way to the rock.
Bibee, a 28-year-old country western musician who has hiked the Mist Trail many times, said that before the victims were swept away he had spent a good part of his hike explaining to his companion how dangerous the wilderness can be.
"People come up here and they think it's Disneyland," he said.
Witnesses called 911 immediately after the accident. The search and rescue unit closed the Mist Trail on Tuesday afternoon while searching for the bodies. The trail, used by 1,500 people a day, was reopened Wednesday as rescuers searched the banks of the river.
The tragedy brings to six the number of people killed in water accidents in Yosemite this year. Two hikers drowned in the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir on June 29, and a hiker slipped and fell into the Merced River on the Mist Trail on May 13.
The deaths occurred in an especially dangerous year for visitors of mountainous areas in the West that experienced record winter snowfall. When temperatures heated up, it melted the snowpack and sent water cascading into rivers and streams.
Four family members died in Wyoming earlier in the week when a road collapsed and sent their car into a raging creek. Early assessments indicate the creek may have undermined the roadway. And in Utah, a 15-year-old girl died after heavy rains caused a huge sinkhole to open on a highway, swallowing a vehicle and causing her father's SUV to careen off the road.
Charmain Morad-Daniel, a board member of the Assyrian National Council of Stanislaus, said she knew Badal well through the victim's father and was acquainted with the men.
"I know three families that are really hurting," she said. "It's a tragedy for the Assyrian community because these are role models and they're active in youth activities through the church."
Badal and Yacoub were of Iraqi descent, she said.
Gewargis Narso, a deacon at the church the three victims attended, described Badal as respectful, nice and responsible.
"I wouldn't have thought she would have taken a chance like that," he said.
Associated Press writer Terence Chea contributed from San Francisco. Cone reported from Modesto.