YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, California -- Young tourists above one of the beautiful and perilous waterfalls were trying to pose for a picture. Instead they burned a horrifying image into the memories of everyone who saw.
The victims were part of a close-knit community of Christians from the Middle East who have been settling in California's Central Valley during the past century.
A man and a woman crossed a metal barricade above the 317-foot Vernal Fall on Tuesday, making their way over slick granite to a rock in the middle of the swift Merced River.
The woman slipped. The man reached for her and fell in. Another man in their group of about 10 tried to help but fell into the water as well. Other hikers, including several children in their group, could only watch as the rushing water swept all three students over the edge.
The couple who were on the rock hugged each other tightly as they disappeared.
"Everyone was screaming," witness Jake Bibee 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."
Signs in several languages warn people not to cross the barricade, and Bibee said other hikers had shouted that it wasn't safe to go into the rushing river.
The three students are presumed dead; rescuers continued searching for their bodies yesterday. The Yosemite Search and Rescue unit identified them as Hormiz David, 22; Ninos Yacoub, 27; and Ramina Badal, 21.
They were members of the Mar Gewargis Parish in Ceres, Calif., part of the Assyrian Church of the East.
"It's very shocking to our community," said the Rev. Auchana Kanoun, who leads the parish.
Ninos Piro said outside the Mar Zaia Cathedral in Modesto that he was friends with all three victims, whom he knew from church.
David was studying music production at Modesto Junior College, Yacoub was studying chemistry at California State University, Stanislaus, and Badal attended the University of San Francisco and had hoped to become a doctor, Piro said.
"They were honest, righteous Christians trying to live their lives the right way," said Piro, 36, of Turlock. "They were trying to be a good influence on everyone around them. That's why you see everyone so torn up around here."
The top of Vernal Fall is always treacherous, and is especially so this year because of the record snowmelt now under way. A metal barricade separates hikers from the river where it pools before crashing over the precipice.