Hikers make their way up the Mist Trail leading to the top of Vernal Fall. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)
Search-and-rescue teams have spent days scouring the banks of the Merced River in Yosemite National Park after three people were swept away over Vernal Fall, but it could be weeks — even months — before the victims are found, park officials said.
Treacherous river conditions caused by a larger-than-normal snow pack this winter have so far limited the search to foot patrols.
"There's so much water and so much churning and so much power behind that water that it would just be completely unsafe to insert park rangers and search-and-rescue divers into the water," said park spokeswoman Kari Cobb. "You wouldn't be able to see anything."
Aerial efforts are also limited because of the canyon the river flows through.
Ramina Badal, 21, of Manteca; Hormiz David, 22, of Modesto; and Ninos Yacoub, 27, of Turlock, were with a church group hiking the park's popular Mist Trail to the top of the 317-foot waterfall. Witnesses said the three were among several members of the group who climbed over a metal barricade into the water despite posted signs and repeated warnings from other hikers.
They were about 25 feet from the edge of the waterfall when witnesses say Badal slipped. A second person tried to rescue her and then a third tried to save the other two. All three were swept over the waterfall as horrified bystanders and friends watched helplessly.
More than 30 people searched for the victims Tuesday and Wednesday, Cobb said. That number was scaled back to about 20 on Thursday. They will continue through the weekend, Cobb said, but after that, rangers will wait for lower water levels and warmer temperatures before sending teams out.
Family members said that despite the odds, they are still holding out for better news.
"We're still hoping. We're hoping," said Nineveh Paules, David's aunt. "We keep praying every day, every minute that they've made it."
But the odds are against them. A dozen people have plummeted down Vernal Fall and none survived.
The intensified water conditions have turned the Merced into a twisting, thrashing river, and the area below Vernal Fall is one of its roughest portions. The angle and elevation of the river make it dangerous even when water levels are lower, and the moss-covered banks of the river are steep and slippery.
"Any sort of body recovery is extremely difficult … but this area in particular because the river is so rough and so unforgiving," Cobb said. "You really have to have ideal conditions to even be able to find a body."
Michael Ghiglieri, coauthor of the book "Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite," keeps tabs on fatalities in Yosemite. River recoveries are no easy task, he said.
"It's extremely difficult to see all these conceivable little places where someone could end up in the water," he said.
So far, Cobb said, searchers have covered up to three-fourths of a mile downstream from the base of the waterfall. Boulders and other obstacles would have most likely stopped the bodies from traveling farther downstream.
The accident brings the total of water-related deaths in Yosemite this year to six. 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.
One victim from the reservoir was found a few hours after he fell in the water, and the hiker who slipped in the Merced — in the same area that's now being searched — was found the next day. The body of the second reservoir victim, however, wasn't recovered until two weeks later.
Though recovery time can be discouraging, Cobb said, search-and-rescue crews remain motivated by the victims' families.
"To be able to provide what little bit of closure you can — whether that's returning the body or being able to tell them that they died quickly — you want to provide that," Cobb said. "We definitely are doing everything we can to make their time of suffering as comfortable as we possibly can."