Accessibility links

Breaking News

Rescuers: French Couple Likely Sacrificed Themselves for Son

FILE - Visitors walk on sand dunes as the sun sets, March 5, 2015, in White Sands National Monument, New Mexico.
FILE - Visitors walk on sand dunes as the sun sets, March 5, 2015, in White Sands National Monument, New Mexico.

A French couple who set out with their 9-year-old son on a hike in the scenic desert in the western US state of New Mexico likely lost their lives in an effort to keep their child alive.

David, 42, and Ornella Steiner, 51, both of Bourgogne, France, gave the boy, Enzo, two sips of water for each one they took before their supply ran dry and they succumbed to the scorching heat in the White Sands National Monument, Otero County Sheriff Benny House said. Enzo survived.

"That may be why he fared so well, is he was a lot smaller and probably had twice as much water,'' House said, referring to the child.

Two empty half-liter bottles of water were found with the bodies. The U.S. park service recommends 3.8 liters of water for each hiker.

Enzo’s grandmother, who flew out to America after learning of the tragedy, was scheduled to bring him back to France this weekend.

Overcome by Heat

Park rangers discovered the three French nationals while patrolling an area about 1.5 miles from the Alkali Flat trail head on a day when the temperature had climbed past 38 degrees Celsius.

House said the boy told authorities that his mother had headed back toward their car after becoming ill. He carried on with his father. But the father became disoriented and "the heat was affecting his judgment," House said.

Park rangers found the mother's body on a routine patrol of the area.

It was only when they checked her camera and saw that she had been with two other people, Hunter said, that a search began for the boy and his father. Enzo was found alongside his deceased father and rushed to a hospital, where he was treated for heat exposure.

Authorities believe the couple died of heat-related causes but are waiting for the results of an autopsy to confirm the official cause of death.

Harsh Environment

Rescuers said it appeared that the parents, who had not signed the park’s entry register, had left for their hike shortly after midday when temperatures can reach 40 degrees Celsius.

Alkali Flat Trail takes visitors through scenic white sand dunes that have engulfed the desert in the national monument to the edge of the Alkali Flat, a lake bed that dried up thousands of years ago, after the last ice age. There is no shade among the dunes and sparse short shrubs are the only vegetation.

Park authorities recommend that summer visitors hike during the coolest part of the day, which is early morning or early evening.