Plane Crash, Death & Other Incidents at Death Valley National Park
June 12, 2016
DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, Calif – As summer temperatures rise in Death Valley National Park, the hottest place on Earth, risks of traveling away from the park's commonly visited areas increase. Park rangers responded recently to three major incidents in remote areas of the park. High temperatures, lack of ability to call for help in case of an emergency, and long distances for emergency responders create a sometimes-deadly combination.
On Sunday, June 5 at 11:30 a.m., a small airplane crashed while attempting to land on an extremely remote dirt airstrip in the park. The Chicken Strip is approximately 1,400 feet long and 35 feet wide. The short landing strip has a reputation for being challenging, which is an attraction for some pilots. The plane ran off the end of the short runway, flipped over forward, and landed on its roof.
The Chicken Strip is in Saline Valley, a remote western section of Death Valley National Park, typically over a 4-hour drive from park headquarters at Furnace Creek. Saline Valley is a popular destination during cooler months, but on the day this accident occurred, only the park's volunteer campground host and one camper were present.
Fortunately, both people in the plane were able to get themselves out of the plane and were not injured. The pilot did not file a flight plan, which meant that if the campground host had not been present to witness the crash, it might have been a long time before the plane and its occupants were found. They had limited supplies and might not have survived long in the 111°F conditions that day.
On Thursday, June 9, park visitors found a deceased motorcyclist on Harry Wade Road, an unpaved road in the extreme southern end of the park. When park rangers arrived, they made no effort to resuscitate him because the state of his body indicated he had been dead for an extended period of time. The man's motorcycle was parked upright and was still functional.
Inyo County is investigating the cause of death. However, Furnace Creek reported a high of 118°F, so heat was likely involved.
Death Valley National Park Superintendent Mike Reynolds said, "This makes me so sad. We think of national parks as wonderlands to explore, but sometimes people don't consider risks enough. We don't know what happened to him, but if he had been on Highway 190 or near Badwater, places that lots of people visit year-round, maybe we could have saved him."
On Wednesday, June 1 around 1:30 p.m., two French citizens were stranded on the unpaved West Side Road. A man and his mother were traveling when their passenger car became stuck in loose sand. No one knew their specific planned travel route and they were out of cell phone range in temperatures above 110°F.
The two visitors walked about a mile to Badwater Road, then walked about another mile before they were picked up by a family visiting the park from Korea. After about an hour drive, they arrived at Furnace Creek Visitor Center and contacted park rangers. By this time, the older French woman was unconscious and exhibiting symptoms of extreme over-heating.
Superintendent Mike was one of the park rangers assisting the French woman. He remembers, "We were doing everything we could, but it takes a helicopter about an hour to get here. I didn't know if she would survive, if she would get to the hospital in time." Fortunately, the woman survived and was release from the hospital after about a week.
Death Valley National Park holds the world record for hottest official temperature: 134°F. Summer temperatures routinely exceed 120°F. In spite of this, large numbers of people visit the park in summer, especially in July and August. Many of these people are from other countries, with limited English skills and little experience traveling in remote areas without cell phone coverage.
Death Valley National Park recommends the following safety tips for summer travel
Plan ahead and prepare.
Plan your travel route.
Cell phone coverage is very limited in Death Valley National Park.
Communicate you travel route to a friend or family member. Give them a specific time you will check back in with them and ask them to call 911 if you don't return on time.
Carry at least one gallon of water per person per day.
Stay on paved roads.
Make sure your vehicle and spare tire are in good condition.
If something goes wrong stay with your vehicle; don't attempt to walk. You can use the vehicle for shade and you will be found more easily.