Three people presumed dead after being swept over a raging waterfall in California's Yosemite National Park ignored warning signs and crossed a barricade to pose for photographs, a witness said Wednesday.
In addition, other hikers on the trail above the 100-metre Vernal Falls warned the group that conditions in the Merced River were treacherous.
"People come up here and they think it's Disneyland," said Jake Bibee, who said he is haunted by the look of terror in one man's eyes as he was swept over the falls clinging to his female companion.
"Everyone was screaming," Bibee, 28, 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."
The Yosemite Search and Rescue unit identified the people presumed dead as Homiz David, 22, of Modesto; Ninos Yacoub, 27, of Turlock; and Ramina Badal, 21, of Modesto.
The tragedy also was watched by young children in the group that accompanied the three people on their trek.
The group of about 10 family members and friends had taken the day trip to see Vernal Falls, a treacherous drop on the swift Merced River made even more dangerous this year because of the record snowmelt now under way.
A metal barricade separates hikers from the river where it pools amid a slick slab of granite before crashing over the precipice. Signs in several languages warn people of the danger that exists when slippery surfaces and fast-moving water collide.
Bibee said he was mortified when he reached the top of the Mist Trail and found members of the group on the river side of the barricade. He had just spent a good part of his hike explaining to his companion how dangerous the wilderness can be.
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 the man complied, another man and woman in the group crossed the barricade and made their way to a rock in the middle of the river to pose for photographs.
"That's when the woman started to slip," Bibee said. "He reached for her and fell in. Then another one tried to help and she falls in the water. We literally watched them get swept over the edge of Vernal Falls."
The couple on the rock hugged each other tightly as they disappeared over the edge.
"It was brutal," Bibee said.
Search for bodies
Bibee, a country western musician, said he had hiked the trail at least 20 times.
Witnesses immediately called 911 on cell phones, alerting park rangers. 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 for the bodies.
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, explaining he was out of town and didn't want to comment further.
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.