The signs often appear out of nowhere, usually before entering a major dip in the road or even on a hiking trail, DO NOT ENTER WHEN FLOODED.
Yet, as of this writing various governmental law enforcement agencies are currently attempting to locate the body of a 28-year-old man who drove into a flooded road, left his vehicle and was swept away through storm drains and into the Santa Cruz River.
On more than one occasion these past few monsoons here in Arizona, people have lost their lives for not heeding the warning and entering a stream that appears non-threatening, yet rips the soul out of a family who must now deal with the sorrow of a storm drowning. It is a sad picture too often repeated in our state’s history, even when we were a territory.
Take a trip into the heart of Apacheria, in the Chiricahua Mountains, and you find the name Rucker on a canyon, trail and lake. The Camp Bowie records of events (which eventually became Fort Bowie) posted on July 31, 1878, stated “2nd Lieut. John A. Rucker, 6th Cavalry Commander, Company C Indian Scout, was drowned at Supply Camp, at White River Canyon. A.T. on the 11th Day of July 1878, while attempting to rescue from drowning, 1st Lieut. Austin Henely, 6th Cavalry (also drowned) and were both buried at Camp Bowie, A.T., July 13th, 1878.”
The Arizona Weekly Star reported Henely and Rucker “met their deaths in White River Canyon” while scouting the area “between Camp Supply and Hatchet Mountains and had succeeded in crossing the fearful torrent of water that was rushing madly along it courses” following a frightful storm of biblical proportions. The paper further reported Henely had not crossed this river once but twice and attempted a third crossing when his horse lost its footing, throwing the hapless first lieutenant into the surging, muddy and debris filled waters.He managed to swim with the current for several feet, but smacked himself into a tree with such force “the blow rendered him helpless.”
Rucker, who was good friends with Henely, saw this terrible incident unfold and grabbed his horse that was still saddled and tied to a post and raced along the side of the river where he would see the other horse and Henely. No sooner does Rucker see his friend’s limp body pressed up against the tree, he charges his horse into the waters, only to succumb to the same torrent as his friend.
The horses made their way out of the water, but the two army friends did not. Henely most likely died instantly when he hit the tree since the doctor’s report indicated one side of the lieutenant’s skull had been crushed. John Rucker, in his attempt to save a close friend, was drowned.
It was later reported that these two friends had been consuming some whiskey prior to the incident, as where some of the other soldiers during this sultry July day. But this is not to besmirch the memory of John A. “Tony” Rucker, since he is certainly a better example of an American success story for heroic behavior than the predictable Hollywood bores of today that run off at a drop of a hat to lend their support to every tin horn dictator who earns high marks for various anti-American stances. John Rucker, born in 1852, was too young to take part in the Civil War, and was lagging in French and math to carry on the tradition of West Point. But Rucker had a strong sense of duty and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 6th Cavalry on July 27, 1872. Six years later his strong sense of duty claimed his life after a friend did not heed the warnings and entered a river flooded by a monsoon storm in an attempt to save equipment being washed away by the flash flood.
And as it turned out, it was a storm that we have never witnessed in modern Tucson history. Following two days of heavy rains, the clouds this July 11 were so purple and black and heavy with moisture they parked themselves on the high peaks and hung ominously low over the valley. When the rain came it roared in torrents, causing a flash flood down the White River and tearing up trees and army equipment in its path, including tents. In an attempt to save equipment, Henely and Rucker died. And as the day progressed, this same storm cell moved on into Pima County and Tucson, dropping 5.10 inches of rain in 70 minutes. This record rainfall still stands, and damaged or destroyed nearly 50 homes and left many residents in the downtown area wading in water up to their armpits. Railroad lines between Los Angeles and Yuma were washed out, yet Fort Lowell didn’t receive a drop of rain.
The July and August rainfall in 1878 was the second highest in Tucson’s history with more than 10 inches, the record broken 77 years later in 1955 with 13 inches for those two months. The fall of 1983 came close to breaking this record after tropical storm Octavia dumped nearly 8 inches of rain in four days.
In the end Arizona has several places which bear the name of an army hero. But how much more in contributions would John Rucker, and even Austin Henely, have managed had they heeded the warnings and not entered the river.