Couple found dead on California trail likely died trying to save baby from heat

Forest Service volunteer says couple appear to have been ‘completely unaware of the dangers’

Gustaf Kilander
Washington, DC
Monday 06 December 2021 15:47

Report details missteps that contributed to hiker family’s deaths in Sierra Foothills

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The California family who was found dead on a hiking trail in the Sierra National Forest on 15 August probably died along with their dog because of the heat, not having enough water, and exertion, investigators believe according to a report.

John Gerrish, 45, Ellen Chung, 31, their one-year-old daughter Miju, and their dog, were found dead near Hite’s Cove in the Sierra National Forest east of San Francisco.

A family friend reported them missing when they didn’t get back from their one-day trip.

Their deaths were considered mysterious and various hypotheses were posited, such as homicide and toxic gasses from abandoned mines in the area.

In a 77-page report obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle, investigators say that a number of “disastrous choices” led to the deaths.

The report revealed that authorities first found the bodies of Mr Gerrish, Miju, and the dog. Ms Chung was discovered “on the upside of a hill”, about 13 feet above the others.

The temperature in the area in the summer can be ferocious and reached 109 degrees Fahrenheit (43C) on 15 August. The couple seemingly hadn’t brought enough water, with a doctor telling investigators that their “clock was ticking” from when they started the hike. The doctor said a person can die from heatstroke in a couple of hours.

According to the report, a survival trainer told authorities that he thinks the parents were “caught off guard, and once they realized their situation, they died trying to save their child and each other”.

He said the terrain, elevation, and heat was a “deadly trifecta”.

“It is likely the child began to succumb first, which hurried the parents’ efforts up the hill. When one could no longer continue, they stayed behind to care for the child and pet, while the other tried to forge on and get help for their loved ones. It is a tragedy of the highest order,” the trainer added.

An employee of the US Forest Service familiar with the trail where the family died told authorities that locals “stay clear” of the trial during the summer.

A volunteer with the service said that when he hikes the trail, he often waits at the bottom until after sunset to make the final ascent back to the trailhead. He recommended that an adult couple carry 320 ounces of water for themselves and 16 ounces each for a baby and a dog. But the couple who died only carried 84 ounces of water, according to the San Franciso Chronicle.

The couple appeared to have been “completely unaware of the dangers”, the volunteer said.

Mariposa County Sheriff Jeremy Briese closed the case in October with the announcement that the family had died from hyperthermia and probable dehydration.

“This is an unfortunate and tragic event due to the weather,” he said at the time.

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