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When authorities found a family and their dog dead on a California hiking trail last August, authorities were, at first, stumped. What could kill two fit adults, their infant daughter, and their dog and leave no clues?
Search and rescue located Jonathan Gerrish, Ellen Chung, their toddler Miju, and family dog Oksi near the Savage Lundy Trail in Sierra National Forest after the family’s babysitter reported them missing. After quickly ruling out trauma, the Mariposa County Sheriff Department spent months investigating potential causes ranging from lightning strikes to a toxic algae bloom in the nearby Merced River poisonous gasses seeping from abandoned mines. After treating the site as a hazmat scene for several days, officials ultimately determined the family died from overheating.
This week, 77 pages of reports, obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle under open records law, added insight to the family’s final hours.
The Gerrish-Chung family set out from the Hites Cove trailhead before 8 a.m. on August 15. Temperatures were a pleasant 70 degrees, but within hours, the mercury climbed to more than 100, eventually reaching a punishing 109. The trail is in an open area with little shade. It would have felt like an oven.
According to the report, rescuers found Gerrish first, with his daughter and dog. The search continued for Chung, who was found about an hour later some distance ahead, leading authorities to believe she was hiking out for help when she collapsed. The family carried only one water container, an 85-ounce bladder, which searchers discovered empty. The extreme heat coupled with lack of water leads to “hyperthermia and probable dehydration due to environmental exposure” for the family and their dog.
An unidentified survival expert cited in the report said that he believes the couple was “caught off guard, and once they realized their situation, they died trying to save their child and each other.”
“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 expert said.