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 woman 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 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."
Signs in several languages warn people not to cross the barricade, and Bibee said other hikers had shouted that it wasn't safe to go into the rushing river.
Dean Sabo, who witnessed the accident, told CBS affiliate KGPE Fresno: "I saw two that were holding each other and one that was floating alone through the water. And the reason that I looked was because this woman was screaming, running along the edge of the water."
The three hikers are presumed dead; rescuers continued searching for their bodies Wednesday. The Yosemite Search and Rescue unit identified them as Homiz David, 22, of Modesto; Ninos Yacoub, 27, of Turlock; and Ramina Badal, 21, of Modesto.
The Rev. Auchana Kanoun, leader of the Mar Gewargis Parish in Ceres, said the three victims were members of his congregation.
"It's very shocking to our community." he said. He declined to comment further, saying he was out of town.
The top of Vernal Falls 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. Signs warn people that climbing over the barrier and getting close to the fast-moving water can be fatal.
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.