Jake Bibee was aghast when he saw members of a church group climb over a protective railing at the edge of Vernal Fall, along Yosemite National Park's popular Mist Trail.
Then dismay turned to horror as one person slipped into the dangerous Merced River, and two others reaching to help also tumbled in. All three were swept over Vernal Fall, plunging more than 300 feet to their deaths Tuesday.
"It was no more than five or six seconds of them bobbing in the water screaming before they went over," Bibee recounted Wednesday. "We had to watch the fear on their faces as they knew they were plunging to their death. It was awful."
Bibee, who grew up in Angels Camp and has hiked to Vernal Fall several times before, was there Tuesday afternoon with a friend. Bibee, 28, said that when he saw people in the river, his first instinct was to rush to help, but he realized, like others around him, there was nothing he could do.
"I turned my head away," he said. "I wasn't going to watch the third person go over after watching two."
The three have been identified as Hormiz David, 22, of Modesto, Ramina Badal, 21, of Manteca and Ninos Yacoub, 27, of Turlock. The bodies have not been found, park officials said.
Before Tuesday's accident, at least 14 people had died by accidentally plunging over Vernal Fall, more than any other waterfall in Yosemite. The three deaths Tuesday are the most at any one time.
The three were part of a church group out of Ceres. They had walked the steep 1.5-mile trail from the Yosemite Valley floor to the top of the fall and moved beyond the protective guard rail to within 25 feet of the waterfall's edge.
There were many witnesses, said park spokesman Scott Gediman, who said often more than 100 people at a time gather at the top of the waterfall on summer days.
"Other visitors were pleading with them to come out of the water," Gediman said.
According to Bibee, several in the church party had gone around the guardrail and were dismissive of requests to stay back from the river. A man in his 40s or 50s who appeared to be in the group, Bibee said, was holding a young girl over the top of the fall.
"Enough of us said, 'Hey man, get out of there. That's not safe,' " Bibee said.
But then Bibee noticed that the three who eventually fell in had also crossed over, and were "taking pictures and being stupid."
Father Genard Lazar of the Church of the East, St. George Parish, and 12 members of the church youth group were eating lunch and taking pictures when the accident happened. Lazar was nearby, but did not see the three go in.
"All I heard was screaming and I turned around and looked up and [David and Badal] were being taken by the water over the waterfall," he said. "We were all crying and praying and someone called 911."
Wednesday evening, the pain was still evident as family members and friends packed the church in Ceres for a vigil. Many of those arriving were crying; others had expressions of shock. Many held out hope for a miracle.
"She was a nursing student," Tanya Badal said of her sister, Ramina, 21. Then she corrected herself. "She is a nursing student."
Badal was a nursing student at the University of San Francisco, and Yacoub was a chemistry student at California State University, Stanislaus, said Father Nenos Michael, who works primarily out of San Francisco. David was studying music at Modesto Junior College.
Lazar said the group got to Yosemite about 10:30 a.m., and took about 90 minutes to get to the top of the waterfall.