A young couple found dead on a California hiking trail over the summer fought to protect their 1-year-old daughter in the hours before they all finally succumbed to the 109-degree heat, according to a new investigative report.
Mystery ensued for weeks after rescue workers discovered the bodies of Jonathan Gerrish, a 45-year-old British software engineer, his 31-year-old wife, Ellen Chung, their toddler, Miju, and family dog, Oski, on Aug. 17 along the Savage Lundy Trail in the Sierra National Forest, near the south fork of the Merced River. How exactly the family died baffled authorities, with investigators initially suggesting toxic algae in the area was to blame.
In October, Mariposa County Sheriff Jeremy Briese revealed the family likely died from hyperthermia and probable dehydration, with their dog also most likely suffering a heat-related death in the scorching conditions. A new 77-page report obtained by The San Francisco Chronicle on Friday provided further insight into the family’s final hours.
Investigators now believe the parents were seeking out medical help for Miju, before they too both collapsed from the heat.
The family began their fatal hike on Aug. 15 before 8 a.m., when the temperatures were still only around 70 degrees, according to the report. One U.S. Forest Service volunteer who had hiked the nearly 8-mile loop more than a dozen times told a deputy the family appeared “completely unaware of the dangers” they faced.
Within hours, the heat climbed to over 100 degrees, and without any shade, the ground would have been incredibly hot and likely painful to sit on.
The couple’s babysitter reported the family missing on Aug. 16 around 11 p.m. Less than 24 hours later, Gerrish, Chung, a yoga instructor and graduate student, their daughter and dog were discovered about 1.6 miles from the trailhead of the Savage Lundy Trail. They’d completed nearly four-fifths of the hike, which officials have repeatedly urged against embarking on during the hotter months of the year.
According to the investigative report, Chung was found a distance ahead of her husband, prompting authorities to believe she was seeking out help when she collapsed. Gerrish, meanwhile, likely sat down and attempted to cool down with the infant, who would have started showing signs of distress well before her parents.
Oski, an Australian shepherd-Akita mix with a thick coat, was also probably struggling amid the hike, investigators said.
What’s more, investigators said the family brought only about 85 ounces of water for their journey, although a U.S. Forest Service volunteer recommended far more.
“Our hearts will never forget the beautiful lives of Jonathan, Ellen, Miju, and, of course, Oski,” the family said in a statement in August. “They will remain with us wherever we go.”