Lightning Didn't Kill Family Who Mysteriously Died on Hike

No clear answer for the loss of Ellen Chung, Jonathan Gerrish, daughter, and dog
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 1, 2021 7:35 AM CDT
Updated Oct 3, 2021 11:20 AM CDT
More Causes Ruled Out in Family's Confounding Deaths
This Aug. 18, 2021, file photo shows a remote canyon area northeast of the town of Mariposa, Calif., that is reported to be the area where a family and their dog were found dead on Aug. 17.   (Craig Kohlruss/The Fresno Bee via AP, File)

(Newser) – A family that died on a hike in California's Sierra National Forest in August did not die by lightning strike, by any weapon, illegal drugs or alcohol, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, cyanide exposure, or by suicide, investigators publicly concluded Thursday. But what did kill Ellen Chung, 31; Jonathan Gerrish, 45; their 1-year-old daughter, Miju; and their dog, Oski, remains a mystery almost seven weeks after their deaths on the steep Hites Cove trail in Mariposa County. Toxic algae and heat exposure are possibilities as the sheriff's office awaits the final key reports in the death investigation, the San Francisco Chronicle reports, but it's unclear when these will be completed.

The Chronicle previously explored the possibility of heat exposure—the temperature is believed to have reached 109 degrees during the family's Aug. 15 hike—while noting that other California hikers have died in similar heat. It also cited the 2018 Climate Change Indicators Report for the state, which found the risk of death increases with warmer temperatures and that young children and "those engaged in vigorous physical activity outdoors" are at greater risk. A researcher told the outlet that heat illness and death are "severely underreported."

The family is believed to have completed most of the 8.5-mile Hites Cove loop, which had little shade following a 2018 forest fire, before dying on a steep switchback section 1.5 miles below where their vehicle was parked. Gerrish was seated on the trail with his daughter and dog beside him, according to investigators. Chung was a little further along the trail. Toxic algae has been found in waterways around the trail, which had posted warnings telling hikers not to drink the water. Investigators are awaiting tests on water samples to determine if toxin levels were high enough to kill a person, per the AP. "ALL other potential causes of death remain," the sheriff's office says. (Read more mysterious death stories.)

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