David and Ornella Steiner - Disturbing deaths in U.S. deserts

David and Ornella Steiner, Died August 4th 2015, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

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David and Ornella Steiner were on vacation with their nine-year-old son when they stopped at southern New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument on August 4th 2015 just after midday. They set out to hike the Alkali Flat Trail, one of the monument’s more difficult trails. The family were French nationals from the famous wine area, Burgundy.

White sands national monument

White Sands is a U.S. National Monument located in the state of New Mexico on the north side of Route 70 about 16 miles (26 km) southwest of Alamogordo in western Otero County and northeastern Doña Ana County. The monument is situated at an elevation of 4,235 feet (1,291 m) in the mountain-ringed Tularosa Basin and comprises the southern part of a 275 sq mi (710 km2) field of white sand dunes composed of gypsum crystals. The gypsum dune field is the largest of its kind on Earth. The monument has featured in a variety of western films, including Four Faces West (1949), Hang 'Em High (1967), The Hired Hand(1971), My Name Is Nobody (1973), Bite the Bullett (1975) and Young Guns II (1990).

White Sands National Monument Alkali Flat Trail

The Alkali Flat Trail on which the Steiners set out is a five-mile loop which ascends and descends many times making it a tough and strenuous task. The trail is marked only by posts staked deep in the gypsum sand.  On the Monument website, the Park Service warns visitors that heat-related illness is common in warm weather and can be fatal. It advises people to hike during cool times. -"Carry food and at least two quarts of water. Rest, eat and drink when tired. Drinking water is available only at the Visitor Center. The white sand reflects sunlight. Protect all exposed skin from sunburn. Protect your eyes by wearing sunglasses. We recommend that you do not hike alone."

According to the National Park Service, which manages the monument, and the Otero County Sheriff’s Office, which is in charge of the investigation they headed into the dunes without water and quickly succumbed to the extreme heat as there is virtually no shade or shelter from the blazing sun and soaring temperatures. Daytime temperatures peaked at 101 degrees on the day they died.

White Sands National Monument Alkali Flat Trail

Sheriff Benny House said Ornella Steiner, 51, began feeling ill on the trail and decided to turn back to the family’s vehicle but collapsed after only a few hundred yards, while David, 42, and his son pressed on. Park rangers found the body of Ornella around 5:30 p.m. on a routine patrol of the Trail.

Looking at Steiner's camera for clues, rangers saw photos of a man and boy at the park's entrance. They were unaccounted for and so deputies then extended their search. They found the father and son about 45 minutes later, slightly off the trail. David Steiner, 42, was dead, whilst the boy was still alive but suffering heat exposure. House said that the couple carried only two small bottles of water but had taken only one sip of water for every two they gave their son. After four and a half hours they had run out of water. 

Benny House Otero Country sheriff

House said “I don’t think they were prepared for the heat. I think they just thought it was a trail and they would walk it. They started out together. The mother had gotten ill. … It wasn’t very far before she went down and then, farther up the trail, the father went down. It’s just a tragedy.

The boy was quickly taken to a hospital and the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department took custody who returned him to France to his grandmother.

It is believed that the Steiners died from heat exposure. A case of serious misadventure in the harshest of environments and another sad story from U.S. deserts. Never take the desert for granted! Always go prepared with too much water, just in case.