A French couple who died during an afternoon hike across the searing New Mexico desert likely saved their 9-year-old son by giving him two sips of water for each one they took before the supply ran out, a sheriff said Friday.
The boy was dehydrated but in remarkably good shape when he was found alongside his dead father on a trail in the White Sands National Monument, Otero County Sheriff Benny House said.
The father and son were found Tuesday about an hour after park rangers found the mother dead.
"That may be why he fared so well, is he was a lot smaller and probably had twice as much water," House said. "He was well hydrated, compared to the other two."
House identified the couple as David Steiner, 42, and his wife, Ornella Steiner, 51. The boy's name wasn't released. They were tourists from the small town of Bourgogne, near the city of Reims, France.
The couple appears to have died of heat-related causes, House said. An autopsy to determine the official cause of death was pending, according to the state medical investigator's office.
The family had two 20-ounce (566-gram) water bottles when they set out on the hike along the national monument's Alkali Flat trail at about 1 p.m., House said. The trail is known for crystalline-white sand dunes and ends at the edge of the Alkali Flat, an ancient dry lake bed.
There is no vegetation or shade, and the National Park Service warns summertime visitors to hike only in the cool hours and carry at least 1 gallon (3.8 liters)of water per person.
The Alkali Flat Trail takes hikers on “a five-mile loop that looks benign” but is strenuous, White Sands Superintendent Marie Sauter said. “It’s up down, up down.”
A 23-year-old Iowa woman died on the same trail in June 2011 after experiencing signs of distress in the heat. In 2002, a 29-year-old Japanese businessman disappeared in the dunes in early September and was found dead of heat exposure weeks later.
The White Sands website has safety information posted in English and six other languages, including French. Sauter said printed materials in French are also available at the monument’s visitor center.
“The environment here can be extreme,” she said. “For folks who can be unaware, it’s very different. It’s like no other place. It’s super bright. It’s super hot. With the white reflecting, and no shade and no trees, it can be quite extreme.”
The high temperature at the monument Tuesday was 101 degrees Fahrenheit (38.3 Celsius), according to the National Weather Service.
House said warning signs were posted in several languages, including French, at the trailhead.
The boy told deputies that his mother began feeling ill and complained of an injured knee about a mile and a half (1,200 meters) into the hike.
"So she made the decision that you guys go ahead and go on, I'm going to go back to the vehicle," House said. "She made it about a hundred yards before she went down."
He said the father and son were unaware that she was in trouble and continued on the trail, making it about 2,000 feet (600 meters) before the father collapsed.
Park rangers on a routine patrol found the family.
The sheriff's office contacted the French consulate in Los Angeles and officials there notified the family's relatives.
The boy's grandmother flew to Albuquerque and was reunited with him Thursday.