A sneaker canyon flash flood drowns a promising future and extracts life from many

Paul Ray Nicholes | 1944- 1961

Paul Ray Nicholes, Estonia 1961, East High School, Salt Lake City. 

What can be said of a 17-year-old boy, however promising, whose life ends early, just as it’s getting started?  Technically, not much!  Forgive me these indulgences.  

A jump headline in the Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday September 19, 1961 reads: Flash Flood Kills 3 In Zion Park.  Correction: actually, five died that day, swept away by the suddenly raging Virgin River, a gurgling creek most of the year.  Over the years, the unpredictable river has acquired an ominous reputation. Fed by torrential rain storms miles away,the river funnels the runoff into into deadly tsunamis that gather power as they are compressed between sheer walls in Zion Canyon that rise as high as a thousand feet on both sides, had claimed hundreds of unsuspecting victims. 

The two others killed that awful Sunday in 1961 with my friend Ray have never been found. A skull fragment of one of them may have been discovered a few years ago, hundreds of miles downstream.  Perhaps the other remainders of that day are decomposing in the sandy bottom of Lake Mead, the terminus of the volatile Virgin.

The body of my young friend Ray was recovered almost immediately. A vague photograph of rescuers hoisting his limp and battered corpus from the river bed was featured on Page 1 of the Tribune the next morning. It haunts me still.  I cannot fathom his parents anguish. Yet, I saw the inexplicable sadness in his father’s eyes each time we met thereafter on the University of Utah campus. It was clear, he saw visions of his namesake son in my face.  

Ray and I were neighbors as small children. He was a year older.  Our fathers were best friends, eventual business partners. Ray was headed for a career as a doctor or researcher at the medical school where his dad was a respected professor. If his life unfolded as expected, he would serve a full-time mission for our church for at least two years. Our daily encounters trailed off after our family moved a few miles away, but Ray and I remained in contact peripherally through our fathers and mutual friends.

As he entered his senior year at East, I knew he had become a superb student, a promising thespian, and accomplished swimmer – “All State” is etched in my mind--and baseball player. The flash flood that Sunday afternoon washed all of that away.

“This wouldn’t have happened if the boys hadn’t been hiking on the Sabbath. They knew better,” offered a well-meaning, if thoughtless adult searching desperately for something useful to say at Ray's closed casket memorial service at the North 33rd Ward meetinghouse.  The careless comment imposed the unhelpful message that the flash flood that Sunday  was God’s heavy-handed way of enforcing his commandment “Honor the Sabbath Day.” God will not be mocked!

What kind of God would wreak such vengeance on a guileless 17-year-old  true believer who was left with no other choice than to hike on Sunday?

Years later, John Bangerter, a survivor of that flood that day told The Deseret News of the group's trek through Zion Park: "It rained a little bit during the night, but nothing significant. We weren't sleeping under tents or anything like that. I guess it had been raining back in the hills behind us — of course, that we didn't know."

The expected two-day trip that turned into three. Bangerter remembered: "We had just barely got out of the Narrows…and(we) heard this roar behind us… and here comes this wall of water" that quickly rose to about 8 feet, washing-out the life of Ray, my full-of-promise childhood friend, extracting life from parents, siblings, relatives and friends who had discovered happiness and joy in his presence.

In the days that followed, I came to understand fully that the untimely death of a good friend or relative extracts life from each of us.