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Keeping Track So They're Never Forgotten: National Park Service Workers Who Died on The Job
The list is long, more than 200 names trickling down over a century and then some. It's a somber one, as well, tracking the deaths of National Park Service workers from a wide range of fates, from heart attacks to rockfalls to cold-blooded murder.
The first name on the list is that of Virgil P. McGoodwin, a laborer working in the now-defunct Platt National Park who died in 1908 when hit in the head by a drill. The most recent is that of Teddy Wayne Garrett, a seasonal maintenance worker at Appomattox Courthouse National Historical Park killed in a motor vehicle accident on June 2, 2010.
In between are the names of chief rangers, U.S. Park Police officers, seasonal laborers, superintendents, and even "volunteers in the parks" who died while on the job with the Park Service.
The list has been given context and is expanded as necessary by Jeff Ohlfs, a district ranger currently based at Joshua Tree National Park. Holding a keen interest in genealogy, the ranger was prompted to look into the circumstances behind the deaths by a series of plaques on the hallway wall outside the Park Service director's office in Washington, D.C.
“There’s a memorial wall in the main Interior building, out by the director’s office, that lists about 200 and some odd names on it. The wall started back in 1991. In '94, '95ish, somewhere in there, I got hold of the listing -- because my wife says I see dead people," Ranger Ohlfs said with a chuckle. "I do my own family history, I’m very big in genealogy. I was at Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, we had an employee fatality there in 1927 which I researched. So that kind of got me going on this whole thing."
Run down through the list and you come upon superintendents who died of heart attacks while at their desks (George H. Sholly, Badlands National Park, August 19, 1959), fire lookouts who were felled by heart attacks (Paul Richard Davis, Mitchell Peak lookout in Kings Canyon National Park, October 8, 1965), and even a chief ranger who died during a snowstorm (William C. Godfrey, Crater Lake National Park, November 18, 1930).
While Ranger Ohlfs won't say the Park Service is among the most dangerous federal agencies to work for, -- "The FBI came out a few years back and said national park rangers, law-enforcement-wise, are the most-assaulted officers in the federal government. As far as the agency as a whole, I have no clue, I’ve never seen any study or heard of any study.” -- the list he maintains is staggering in terms of the causes of death.
Here's a look at some of the names on the list and the circumstances behind their deaths gleaned by Ranger Ohlfs. In some cases, additional
details were pulled from Butch Farabee's encyclopedic book, Death, Daring, & Disaster, Search and Rescue in the National Parks.
* On March 12, 1927, James Cary was murdered by bootleggers in Hot Springs National Park.
* On February 20, 1929, naturalist Glen Sturdevant and Ranger Fred Johnson drowned at Horn Creek Rapid on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park while on a "reconnaissance and collecting trip." Chief Ranger James Brooks survived the incident and gave the following account during a coroner's inquest:
Mr. Sturdevant was rowing. Fred in the bow and I was in the stern. The boat swung around and I told Glen to pull and I would try to turn it. We began to lose distance. The shore current swung the boat around ... and drifted us towards the rapids, and we could see then it was impossible to do any more rowing. I believe I said that we were going to go over, seems as if I said that, and then Glen lost one of the oars. We went over the side and we did not have a chance and it could not have been a very short distance, probably about the second cascade which threw all of us in.
* On March 20, 1932, U.S. Park Police Officer William J. Grissam died in the National Capital Parks in Washington, D.C., when the bike he was riding on patrol ran into a parked car.
* On July 15, 1933, Abraham Yancovitch, a Civilian Conservation Corps worker, died at Bacon Rind Creek Camp in Yellowstone after, notes Ranger Ohlfs, being "hit in the head (7/13) by Army Sgt. possibly with club for washing his mess kit in the water used to refrigerate perishable food, went to tent laid down on bunk & died, Sgt. Acquitted."
* On November 13, 1938, Acadia National Park Ranger Karl Andrew Jacobson was shot and killed by a poacher who mistook him for a deer.
* On June 21, 1947 three snowplow operators in Yellowstone National Park died when they went to rescue summer vacationers caught by a sudden blizzard and themselves were caught. Rescuers stumbled upon their bodies under a deep drift.
Rescuers literally fell through a drift onto the the roof of a buried pickup truck and found the three missing Yellowstone snowplow crewmen. In a futile attempt to provide help for dozens of stranded motorists, Vernon E. Kaiser, John P. Baker, and Richard N. Huckels had suffocated to death in a sealed truck cab.
* Yosemite National Park's assistant chief ranger, Charles R. Scarborough, was killed on June 21, 1954, while leading a six-mule pack train to the Merced Lake Ranger Station. He and his horse were swept off the trail by a rockfall near Clarks Point.
* Charles Wallace, an engineering technician at Sequoia National Park, died on November 10, 1958, from tetanus acquired from a Yellowjacket sting.
* On May 5, 1966, two seasonal workers, 24-year-old William Earl Shaner and 37-year-old Ashley Norman Smith, drowned while trying to save swimmers caught in heavy surf at Fire Island National Seashore.
In a posthumous Citation for Valor Award to Mr. Shaner, then-Interior Secretary Stewart Udall wrote that, "While on duty near Sailors Haven on May 21, 1966, where he was giving an interpretive talk to a group of hikers, Mr. Shaner, employed as a seasonal ranger-naturalist with the National Park Service, responded to a call to assist two swimmers in danger of drowning. Together with Mr. Smith, a seasonal maintenanceman, who had also responded to the call for assistance, they made a team effort to rescue the two swimmers drowning in the heavy surf. They initiated the rescue attempt on a fifteen foot surfboard and when it was wrested from them by heavy surf action, valiantly and heroically they continued their rescue efforts. The exertion and subsequent exhaustion proved to be more than he could physically withstand and he became a victim of drowning."
For his role, Mr. Smith also posthumously received an Interior Department valor award and both were honored with Carnegie Hero Bronze Medal Awards.
* Seven Park Service employees from the agency's Pacific Northwest Regional Office -- Keith Armer Trexler, Carol Sue Byler, Dawn Hughuette Finney, Rhonda Kay Barber, Clara (Mickiet) Veara, Nancy Jane Matlock, and Janice Lynn Cooper -- were killed on September 12, 1975, when the plane they were in crashed in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve in Fish Trap Lake in Alaska. Ranger Ohlfs notes that the flight was a mix of "surveying possible land withdrawals & orientation trip" and that the cause of the crash was attributed to the plane being overweight and flying too low.
The damage was impressive. They found the plane's clock stopped at 4:51 p.m. and its tachometer jammed at 1,850 rpm. The prop, moving at nearly full speed when it struck, cut one 14-inch tree in half while an engine gouged a twenty-foot-long furrow in the rocky slope before it too died. The fuselage was crushed upward and buckled, the top severed behind the trailing edge of the wing.
"This was not a survivable accident; all aircraft occupants were killed on impact," according to the National Safety Transportation Board. The official accident report went on to state that "control was lost when the pilot became preoccupied while conducting sightseeing activities and inadvertently stalled the aircraft.
* On August 12, 1995, a seasonal climbing ranger, Sean H. Ryan, 23, and a Student Conservation Association volunteer in the parks, Philip J. Otis, 22, died in Mount Rainier National Park in a fall from Emmons Glacier while on a mission to rescue an injured climber, John Craver, who had broken an ankle in a fall.
When Craver's two companions arrived at Camp Muir, they said that they had left him alone with all the extra clothes and food they had available. This led to additional concern that the injured Craver was now alone; Ryan and Otis kept climbing. At 11:25 p.m. Ryan radioed that they were near 12,000 feet, that it was cold and windy, but they were going to continue on. He also indicated that they were having a crampon problem. He said they could see where Craver was reported to be and they expected to reach the hurt man around 1 a.m because the climbing was going slow. All attempts to contact the two men after that last transmission were unsuccessful.
Leaving Camp Muir just after midnight, the second rescue team reached Craver five hours later; Ryan and Otis had never arrived. Within hours the Chinook helicopter, with more climbing rangers to assist, evacuated Craver. In the meantime, the park's radio center reported that a climbing party had found an NPS ice axe and part of a crampon near the 13,000-foot level of nearby Winthrop Glacier. A thousand feet below lay the two bodies of the young rescuers.
While the two plaques on the wall outside the director's office gave Ranger Ohlfs a big jump on assembling his list, he conducts additional research to ensure no one has been left off or, in some cases, added to the list but didn't belong.
"I read a lot of director’s annual reports. I have a huge library of books on rangers, written by, about, all the different types, so little leads here and there. Any documents I can find, National Archives research, myriad places that I can go to," he explained.
That research has proven that "the wall is not correct, there are people missing, there are people on there who don’t belong to our agency, there are people who didn’t die while working for the agency, just all sorts of little things," the ranger said.
His list also is not designed to contain only the deaths of full-time rangers or staff, and he doesn't leave off the names of those who might have died of natural causes or a motor-vehicle accident.
“My list, all it is is a listing of people who have died on duty or as a result of injuries occurred on duty. Whether they died at their desks or they died in motor vehicle accidents, I’m not distinguishing line of duty," said Ranger Ohlfs.
He also doesn't pore over his list to try to rank "the most dangerous" parks to work in.
“I’ve not crunched numbers to see what’s the most dangerous park in the system, or anything along those lines. Because that’s kind of unfair. It just depends on a lot of circumstances," said Ranger Ohlfs. "But I do have a category listing, everything from avalanches to aviation accidents to biking, blasting, and drowning, exposures and falls, wildlife incidents. Yellowjacket stings, trees falling on people, people dying on snowmobiles, rock slides, poisoning.”
The murder of Ranger Cary holds particular significance to Ranger Ohlfs, who was stationed at Hot Springs National Park for a while and came to know Ranger Cary's daughter while researching the murder. As the story goes, the ranger was ambushed by bootleggers on the park's West Mountain and killed, possibly to prevent him from testifying at a later trial.
"That’s very close to me. I'm very close to his daughter, and so, that is one that comes home the closest," Ranger Ohlfs said.
The ranger's research led to "indications that it was a setup. It’s a good conspiracy theory story.”
While there have been at least 231 confirmed deaths of Park Service employees, volunteers-in-the-parks, or others working in some fashion for the agency, Ranger Ohlfs continues to investigate new leads.
“I do it as time permits, or I get a lead, or I pick something up, but there’s about 13 people who are still a possibility. I’ve got to have something that says that they were on duty, it happened while they were on duty, stuff like that," he said.
For his efforts in maintaining and updating the list, Ranger Ohlfs has been recognized with a Special Thanks for Achieving Results, or STAR, award from the Park Service and a special commendation from Park Service Director Jon Jarvis.
Since 1998, Ranger Ohlfs has carefully researched details surrounding the deaths of all National Park Service employees who are known to have died while on the job. Driven by his love of history and genealogy, and using skills honed as a trained criminal investigator, Ohlfs has contributed years of his own time and resources searching out investigative reports, death certificates, agency files, correspondence, newspaper accounts, and other public records for details on National Park Service employees who died while at work. In the process, he has interviewed hundreds of family members, friends, and colleagues of the deceased employees.