YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. (AP) — Every year for a quarter century, the congregation of Calvary Chapel East Anaheim has traveled to the Sierra Nevada foothills for a spiritual family retreat.
This year they are leaning heavily on their faith after a 10-year-old drowned and his 6-year-old brother remained missing after being swept away by the Merced River during a side trip to Yosemite Valley.
"I hope people will pray for us, and pray for those precious little boys," Pastor Maury Evans said Friday.
National Park Service officials said Andres "Andy" Adams died and his brother Jacob was presumed dead, though the search continued. Their mother Char-Lee Hargis Adams of Yorba Linda was hurt trying to save them, and was recovering at a hospital with the tight-knit church's senior pastor at her side.
It's the second time in just over a year that a tragedy has befallen members of a church during an outing to the deceptively treacherous Merced River. A year ago, three friends from a Modesto church were swept to their deaths while cooling off in a pool above Vernal Fall, on the same popular hiking trail where the Adams family was hiking.
The park gets 4 million visitors a year, and 2,000 people a day hike Mist Trail, which leads to the waterfall where the Merced River — called the voice of Yosemite — makes its spectacular descent into the valley.
August is the low-water season, but the river is still deceptively fast. The granite boulders that line the bed and banks, some as large as houses, are as slick as ice when wet. Last year it took months to find the bodies of the people who went over the fall and ended up trapped under rocks.
The river falls 317 feet straight down to a narrow gorge then descends another 400 feet by the time it reaches the bridge. While the water is calm at the edge, it is forceful as it cascades over and around boulders down the steep canyon.
Because Yosemite National Park is a wilderness area, officials place signs only at trailheads to warn of potential dangers on the trail. Often visitors more used to vacationing in places such as Disneyland are unaware that the beauty of natural features can mask danger.
The mother, an adult son named Josh Reish and the two young boys had stepped into the water below the Vernal Fall Footbridge Wednesday to cool off on a day when temperatures were in the 90s. As the young boys' father, Angelo Adams, and Reish's wife watched from the bridge, somehow the boys ended up in white water about 15 feet from the banks and were carried away.
Another park visitor plucked Andres from the water about 150 yards downstream and performed CPR for 30 minutes until rangers arrived and continued the life-saving efforts, to no avail. His brother disappeared.
"We are grieving, I'm grieving. We have a lot of things that happen in the church that at times just rock you," Evans said. Many of the church's 3,000 congregants have called asking how they can help the family, he said.
Jacob was described as "a very sweet, spunky young man — full of enthusiasm" by Becky Kopeny, wife of senior pastor Bob Kopeny. The pastor and wife know less about Andy.
The boys' mother is inconsolable, they said.
"Physically she suffered injuries — an ankle and discs damaged from falling trying to save her sons. Her real obvious anguish is in her heart," Kopeny said.
The church will hold a service at 6 p.m. Saturday for all who want to pray for the family.
"We will pray for their comfort and for the little boy, that he be found," Kopeny said.
On Friday, more than 15 park operatives, including law enforcement rangers and members of the search and rescue team, descended on a mile-long stretch of the river where they believe Jacob's body might be lodged. Some divers were in the water exploring crevices. Others were on the popular trail telling visitors about the tragedy.
"It's an opportunity for us to give safety messages," said park spokeswoman Kari Cobb. "This is an extremely rough portion of the Merced River, probably the roughest in all of Yosemite."
The family was staying at Sugar Pine Christian Camps in Oakhurst near the south entrance to Yosemite National Park. At least 100 other members of the congregation were there for the annual retreat the church has organized since its inception.
"They have Bible studies, time for fellowship and just take time to enjoy God's beautiful creation," Evans said.
The camp is about an hour drive from Yosemite Valley, where most of the park's visitors are drawn to experience towering waterfalls spilling over 3,000-foot granite cliffs. The Adams family decided to go to Yosemite on Wednesday, while many others in the group chose an outing to nearby Bass Lake.
"It's such a beautiful place, and we feel close to God there," Evans said.
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