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Church mourns Phoenix-area youth drowned on trip; 2 still missing

A teenager who drowned in the Colorado River on a church hiking trip last week was described by his pastor as a young man who planned to go into the ministry.

Mark Merrill, 16, attempted to swim across the river with his older brother, Joey, 22; and friend, Saif Savaya, 16. Mark’s body was found; Joey and Saif remain missing.

The Merrills are from Sanders. Joey has lived in the East Valley for the past four years while attending International Baptist College, a ministry of Tri-City Baptist Church. Joey was planning to graduate in December and then enter the ministry.

Joey Merrill was described as a young man who values life so much that he devotes his to others, yet is so lighthearted that he is not above pulling practical jokes on the church staff and fellow churchgoers.

“He was unbelievably loved,” said Mike Sproul, pastor at Tri-City, where Joey attended. “Just a great young man. Whatever you needed to do, he was there.”

Mark looked up to his older brother and like him, desired to go into the ministry.

Their friend Saif, a Williams Field High School soccer player, is said to have been a good kid from a good family.

“They were wonderful young men – very caring, very giving,” Sproul said.

While not known as adventurous, Mark attempted to swim across the river Thursday morning. It cost him his life.

National Park Service rangers began searching for the bodies of Joey and Saif Thursday morning, but have since scaled back their effort.

“We always hope until we know for sure,” Sproul said. “There are thousands of people across the world praying. . . . I’ve been getting e-mails and text messages from across the world.”

National Park Service rangers have repeatedly searched a 10-mile area via boat, helicopter and foot with dogs. Fliers have been placed around the park.

The young men participated in their church’s annual hiking trip at the Grand Canyon last week, said Sproul. About 30 people went on the trip, less than half of them were college students and teens.

“It’s not a race to the bottom,” Sproul said. “It’s a chance to say “Here’s God’s creation. Get up early and see the sun come over the Grand Canyon.”

Saif and Mark were among several non-Tri-City members on the trip.

Instead of using a bridge to cross the river, the youths found a trail around the bridge and decided to wade in the water before diving in.

Sproul said other hikers yelled at the young men, cautioning them to get out of the river, but Sproul wasn’t sure if the youths heard the warnings.

The water was moving at 15,000 cubic feet per second.

Mark’s body was discovered Friday, a mile south of where the trio was last seen.

For the past 25 years, college students and others affiliated with Tri-City have hiked the canyon.

All participants are required to read a National Park Service-issued safety manual before the trip.

People are stationed throughout the canyon and are equipped with walkie-talkies to insure safety. Sproul said the hikers travel in small groups and are no more than half a mile apart.

The Tri-Baptist Church community has been shaken all weekend, and he attempted to comfort them Sunday morning with a biblical passage that speaks of navigating life’s troubled waters, he added.

Sproul was in New York’s Central Park with some of the church’s high-school seniors when he received the message about the young men.

More than 100 students are enrolled at IBC, Sproul said.

Members of the IBC family were on campus Friday mourning Joey’s disappearance. Grief counselors will continue to be available for students.

Classes resume Monday and plans were in place to honor Joey at this year’s graduation.

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