On a sunny blue afternoon, a dozen men and women parked their cars Tuesday, paid a few dollars in admission to the Navajo Indians sitting in the shade under a shed, walked a hundred yards across a bone-dry wash and entered a stony labyrinth known as Lower Antelope Canyon.
They did not realize they were descending into their tomb.
One by one, the tourists squeezed into a fissure in the earth, wriggling through the golden brown sandstone walls, down 50 feet, 100 feet, by creaking wooden ladder, until they reached the sandy floor of the famous slot canyon.
Its walls polished smooth by time, the crevice is so narrow in places a hiker can reach out and touch both walls.
Tens of thousands of tourists have visited the canyon. Tuesday's short day hike, which led to the death of 11 and the almost miraculous survival of a lone man, was one of the worst accidents in the western wilderness in recent memory.
What the hikers -- all but two were foreign tourists -- apparently did not know was that over a mesa some 15 miles away, a severe thunderstorm was saturating the watershed with torrential rain and pebble-sized hail.
As the tour group admired the canyon's sculpted walls, the cathedral silence and the twisting snake of blue sky above, the gullies and washes a few miles away were filling quickly with rain. In these desert lands, such heavy rains do not fall softly, but create flash floods, deadly rivers of silt, sand and stone.
Sometime after 4 p.m., Ted Candelaria was on his way home from the Navajo Power Generating Station a mile away when he stopped and reported a raging torrent of water, as high as 10 feet and 200 feet across.
It was careering down into the open creek bed just above the hikers, Candelaria said. Then it roared into the canyon.
Coconino County Sheriff Joe Richards has worked these lands as a lawman for 24 years, and today he stood at the spot where the floodwaters entered the canyon.
"I cannot imagine what they saw," Richards said, leaning over the precipice. "Can you? The horror?"
His deputy, Sam Whitted, said, "Imagine the force, the pounds per square inch of pressure." He compared the effect to taking water gushing from a fire hose and blasting it into a pipe a quarter-inch around.
Inside the canyon, the floodwaters quickly swelled from a height of 10 feet to 20 feet or 30 feet or more.
Amazingly, one man survived the ordeal. Poncho Quintane, 28, was a guide for TrekAmerica, a tour group that took mostly young Europeans across the West for a taste of the vast vistas.
According to an interview with Coconino Sheriff Detective David Ramos, Quintane said his group of five hikers -- from France, Britain and Sweden -- were almost done with their tour when he saw the floor of the canyon begin to fill quickly with water. He gathered the group together.
"They had their arms wrapped around each other," Sheriff's Deputy Whitted said. "And he pressed them against the side of the canyon."
Minutes later, the flood hit.
"He saw several of the people from his group who were upstream come rushing by," Whitted said. "He tells himself, You can live,' and he had some training, something, and he protects his head and face and points his feet downstream."
Sheriff's Deputy Monty McKnight and one of the Navajo Indians found Quintane clinging to rocks or a clump of vegetation about a quarter mile from where investigators believe the group was standing when the floodwaters hit them.
Quintane had been propelled down the canyon, and when McKnight reached him about 30 minutes later, he had been stripped of every shred of clothing, naked.
"His eyelids were stuffed with silt and mud," Whitted said. "He could not see. But he was alive."
Greg Adair, who works for the Navajo Nation as a criminal investigator, said, "It was like being stuck in a crazy washing machine filled with rocks. Somebody was on his side."
Quintane was taken to the hospital here in critical condition, but later released. The tour company he works for said he would not speak to reporters.
The names of the missing -- and now presumed dead -- have not yet been released by authorities, pending positive identifications and notification of kin. The body of one female hiker, in her twenties, was found Wednesday, in a branching creek of Lower Antelope Canyon. Her clothes were filled with heavy silt. Two more bodies were recovered today.
One of the missing hikers left behind a wife and child in an area motel. Two others, a husband and wife, left their children in another hotel. The sheriff said the children are being taken care of.
Today, searchers brought dogs trained to sniff for corpses into the canyon and they alerted handlers to look for signs of death at the terminus of Lower Antelope Canyon, where it empties six miles downstream into Lake Powell, the artificial blue lake created from the Colorado River by Glen Canyon Dam.
Sheriff's deputies said they had found shoes and clothes believed to belong to the victims in the debris pushed downstream by the floodwaters.
In accidents such as these, there is always the search for blame.
At the Navajo Nation's Tribal Park, which includes the entrance to Lower Antelope Canyon, there are no signs warning hikers of the dangers of flash floods. Today, some tribal elders said there should be.
There were, however, reports by the weather service of the severe thunderstorms in the area. But during August monsoons in Arizona those warnings are common, and many people, even locals, do not pay much attention.
Sheriff Roberts said he is not prepared to file charges against anyone. "I don't see that there is blame," he said. "In all my years out here, we've had no report of a flood like this in the canyon."
But Lower Antelope Canyon offers a warning, to those who know how to read the signs. The canyon was carved by raging waters. Often, hikers encounter standing pools during their walks.
Members of the Navajo Nation, the Young family, have held grazing rights around the canyon for years, and they have often clashed, in the quiet Indian way, with elders who did not want them to take admissions and keep the proceeds. In the last two years, a more formal policy of admittance has evolved. But the entrance to these canyons has remained casual.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that at least some of the hikers were warned about possible flash floods, but it is not clear today who warned whom, or when. Unlike the vast federal holdings around Lake Powell, with their rangers and pamphlets, no such luxuries exist on the Navajo lands. The Native Americans say they do not have the resources.
Clarence Gorman, a Navajo and director of the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Department, visited the scene today and expressed sadness.
"This was a bad thing, a very sad thing," Gorman said. "The Navajos tell their young people, don't be in a wash when there's rain above you."
The name the Navajos have given the canyon just above the one where some of the 11 people are believed entombed in the silt means "the place where water runs through rocks."
The name they give the slot canyon where the hikers are thought to have died is "spiritual rock arches."
This is, people now agree, something that visitors from other places should know and understand. CAPTION: The entrance to narrow Lower Antelope Canyon, where tour groups can admire walls sculpted by earlier flash floods, cathedral silence and the twisting snake of the blue sky above.