A French couple dies from what authorities are calling heat exposure after falling ill on the Akali Flat trail at the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. David Steiner, 42, and Ornella Steiner, 51, both from Bourgogne, France, succumbed to heat and dehydration earlier last week. Sheriff’s deputies found the dead couple on Tuesday afternoon nearly two miles apart. Their 9-year-old son, Enzo, was found alive next to David Steiner’s body, according to KCTV5.com on Sunday.
Known for its white rolling sand dunes, the White Sands National Monument is a popular summer destination, said the Otero County Sheriff, Benny House. That part of the New Mexico desert located southwest of the city of Alamogordo in western Otero County had already claimed the lives of two other people before the French couple within the last 10 years. The extreme environment can prove deadly if hikers go unprepared for the high temperatures.
The two French tourists only had two bottles of water between them and their son. Authorities say David and Ornella Steiner took one sip of water for every two they gave to the boy. Temperatures soared above 100 degrees Fahrenheit earlier last week. Ornella Steiner reportedly became ill early Tuesday and turned to go back to the car, leaving David Steiner and their 9-year-old son to hike the Akali Flat trail alone.
During routine trail patrol, a law enforcement ranger with the White Sands National Monument, found the body of Ornella Steiner nearly two miles from the Akali trail head around 5:15 p.m. on Tuesday. An Otero County Sheriff’s deputy began looking through photos on a digital camera found with Steiner’s body and realized she hadn’t been alone on the trail. Sheriff House said if not for the camera, the boy could have been a victim as well.
After following Ornella Steiner’s tracks, David Steiner’s body was found 30 minutes later with the boy alive by his side. The French couple’s son had no idea that both his parents had been overcome by heat exposure. According to ABC News, their son Enzo told an interpreter that his mother began complaining of the heat and a knee injury and turned back. Ornella Steiner only made it a little over 300 feet before she collapsed. The father reportedly became disoriented while looking for the car and led the boy off trail.
Said Enzo, his father kept telling him that the vehicle is “right over here, right over here.” The park is marked with orange sign posts telling hikers where to go, but the heat was apparently affecting David Steiner’s judgment. Enzo was found dehydrated but conscious. His grandmother has since flown from France to New Mexico to take custody of the boy. Friends and family in Reims, France say they are shocked that the couple found themselves in such a dangerous situation, saying the Steiners were “sensible and didn’t do things recklessly.”
Sheriff House believes the French couple died because they just weren’t prepared for that type of heat. “I just think they underestimated the desert,” said House. Timestamps on the photos show the Steiners probably arrived at the White Sands National Monument around noon on Tuesday. They were reportedly only on the trail for four hours before they ran out of water. Autopsy results are still pending. The French family had been visiting national parks as they traveled across the United States.
Park Superintendent Marie Sauter told news media that “It has been a completely heartbreaking experience for all of us.”