Investigators say a couple, their young daughter, and a family dog ââdied of hyperthermia and possible dehydration while hiking in California this summer.
When the bodies of Ellen Chung, John Gerrish, one-year-old daughter Miju and family dog ââOski were found on a hiking trail in central California on August 17, investigators were at a loss.
Her remains, discovered in a small valley called Devil’s Gulch, showed no obvious wounds or signs of trauma – no indication that an animal or any other person was to blame.
Was it a lightning strike? A release of carbon monoxide or other gases from nearby disused mines? Exposed to cyanide? Suicide?
One by one, all of these theories were ruled out.
For two months, the deaths remained a mystery.
But on Thursday, the sheriff’s deputies in Mariposa, a small mountain town east of San Jose that serves as the gateway to the Sierra National Forest and Yosemite National Park, announced that they had finally identified the cause: heat.
Sheriff Jeremy Briese told reporters they discovered the family had died of hyperthermia and possible dehydration due to excessive heat.
Hyperthermia is an abnormally high body temperature caused by the failure of thermoregulatory mechanisms in the body due to environmental conditions National Health Institute.
The cause of death for the dog is still being determined, but according to Briese it was the same.
“This is an unfortunate and tragic event because of the weather,” said Briese.
The Gerrish / Chung family were reported missing on August 16 after UK-born Gerrish, a 45-year-old who previously worked as a software engineer at Google, was unable to sign up for his new job on Snapchat.
A nanny who was supposed to take care of Miju that day said no one opened the door.
Chung, 30, was a yoga teacher and studied therapist. The couple had moved to Mariposa from San Francisco last year during the pandemic to give their young family more space. They had bought several lots in the area, including one near the Hite Cove Trail, which they set out from.
The bodies were discovered by search teams at around 11 a.m. the next day on a zigzag section of the adjacent path about 2.5 miles from the family’s truck.
It is believed that they set out two days earlier, on the morning of August 15, and ran more than 5 miles before they died.
âThey probably just went out, so it wouldn’t have been like an extreme hike,â family friend Steve Jeffe said earlier the San Francisco Chronicle. “Since they lived near the starting point, it was probably just like, ‘Let’s look at these things.'”
The couple were veteran hikers who were once in the Himalayas, but a 2018 forest fire burned most of the vegetation in the area where they died and left little shade.
When the family first left, temperatures were already in the ’70s, but as they descended in altitude the temperatures rose accordingly, climbing to a high of 107 to 109 degrees Fahrenheit.
Briese described the path as âvery deceptiveâ, as the steep differences in altitude are not visible when looking at it online, as Gerrish had done the night before the departure.
The couple only carried an 85-ounce container of water and there was no evidence that they had ingested water from a nearby river.
Investigators had found high levels of a deadly toxin in the river that is produced by blue-green algae, but Briese said they didn’t think it was a factor.
Algae experts told BuzzFeed News that the amount recorded in the river water would not be enough to kill adults that quickly unless they consumed an astounding amount.
“You’d drown before you had enough water,” Raphael Kudela, professor of marine science at UC Santa Cruz, told BuzzFeed News.
Federal agencies in Washington, DC, are also working to crack Gerrish’s phone to get more information, such as whether he tried to call for help.
At the press conference on Tuesday, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office read a statement from members of the family.
âLosing a close relative is a pain that can hardly be put into words. When that loss is multiplied by four – and one of those four is a one year old baby – the pain is beyond description, âthe family said. “Some questions have been answered and we will use this information to help us deal with the situation. However, the question of why can never be answered and will remain with us.”