Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Grand Canyon Nightmares
by Robert A. Waters

About a dozen people die each year while visiting America's most cherished natural wonder, the Grand Canyon. Steep cliffs, narrow trails, and rugged terrain can lead to fatal falls, but plane crashes, suicides, and homicides also account for many deaths. The Canyon is 277 miles long, 18 miles wide, and up to 6,000 feet deep. With millions of visitors each year, it is likely safer vacationing in the Grand Canyon than driving your car to get there, but don't tell that to the families of those who died.

Colleen Burns, an Orlando, Florida resident, was enjoying her visit to the famous park when she plunged off a ledge and fell 400 feet. She'd been hiking with friends, and posting pictures of her vacation on Twitter. As she moved aside on a squeeze-box narrow trail to let another hiker pass, Burns lost her footing. The coroner ruled that her death was accidental, due to “blunt trauma” caused by the fall. Burns' heartbroken family stated that she had been in a good spot in her life. She worked as a marketing director for Yelp, and was a booster of her adopted hometown. Her father, Jim Burns, spoke for many when he said: “I never realized how many deaths occur at the Grand Canyon.” Just a few weeks before, 23-year-old Californian Jamerson Whittaker also died from a fall in another section of the park.

A Japanese tourist, Tomomi Hanamure, aged 34, was brutally murdered by Randy Redtail Wescogame on an Indian Reservation just outside the Grand Canyon. The long-time ne'er-do-well saw Hanamure hiking alone and offered to guide her to a series of remote waterfalls in the Canyon. Instead, he robbed the tourist, then bludgeoned her and stabbed her to death. Wescogame had been in trouble with the law since he was eight-years-old. By age thirteen, he was addicted to methamphetamine. He had committed dozens of violent crimes by the time he murdered Hanamure, but had served almost no jail time. While Japanese media highlighted this crime, most American news organizations ignored it. Wescogame pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life in prison.

In 2009, the United States Forest Service reported that Gheorghe Chiriac committed suicide by driving over the edge of the Canyon. Park rangers reported that “a car had been driven up onto the curb of the loading area between the El Tovar Hotel and the Kachina Lodge. The tracks indicated that the car then veered left, traveling through the grass behind the Kachina Lodge until it reached the Thunderbird Lodge where it veered right and [drove] into the canyon.” Chiriac's car was located 600 feet below, and his body found nearby. After investigating, the Forest Service ruled his death a suicide. One of the most bizarre deaths on record was that of Richard Clam. While taking a helicopter tour over the Canyon, Clam unbuckled his seat belt, opened the chopper's door, and leaped into the abyss. Forest rangers found his remains 4,000 feet below. After gathering bits and pieces of Clam's body, the Forest Service ruled his death a suicide. In 2001, a cherry-red plane flown by a single pilot disappeared in the Canyon. Four years later, hikers discovered the mangled plane between two giant boulders. A skeleton sat in the cockpit, a macabre ending to someone's lonely life. After investigating, the Forest Service determined that the pilot was a lovelorn soul who intentionally killed himself.

More than 100 helicopter flights each day transport visitors over the Canyon for spectacular views. Since 1980, about 30 have crashed in the Canyon. In 2011, a tourist helicopter crashed near Lake Mead, killing the pilot and all four passengers. In 2001, a family from New York died when a Eurocopter AS350 crashed into a ridge-line high in the mountains.

The most infamous air crash occurred in 1956 when two jetliners collided, killing 128 people. A TWA Lockheed Super Constellation and a United Airlines Douglas DC-7 Mainliner had both wandered off course and ended up in exactly the same air space, directly over the Canyon. At the time, air traffic control was in its infancy, so the pilots had little real direction. After crashing, both planes plunged 21,000 feet. All passengers and crew aboard both planes died. The crash fueled demands for greater air safety, and soon afterward the Federal Aviation Agency (later renamed the Federal Aviation Administration) was formed.

The Grand Canyon can be a wild, unforgiving habitat. But it is also an exhilarating natural wonder. Scientists theorize that humans roamed its trails 10,000 years ago. In this era when most people live in cities and see little of nature, Grand Canyon National Park can be an eye-opener.

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