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Mapping the Grand Canyon's gruesome legacy of death

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 28/05/2015 John Metcalfe

Image Esri et al.: Mapping the Grand Canyon's Gruesome Legacy of Death © The Atlantic Mapping the Grand Canyon's Gruesome Legacy of Death

One of America’s mightiest sights is also a mighty destroyer. Since the mid-1800s, some 770 people have died in the Grand Canyon—and due to inconsistencies in the record, the real number is probably higher.

In an average year the yawning fissure racks up about a dozen fatalities. Some are suicides, like the man who came from California to gun his car over the rim. Others are the result of dehydration or hypothermia. There’s always the tragic accident, like the guy who perished trying to grab something he dropped, “possibly a hat.” And then there are airplane crashes, including the horrific collision of two commercial jets in 1956, which prompted the country to rethink its approach to air communication.

Thanks to the folks at Esri and elsewhere, we now can explore the canyon’s sprawling geography of death. “ Over the Edge 3D” is an interactive, comprehensive map of the landmark’s bloody legacy, inspired by the 2001 book Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon. True to its name, the map can be viewed in 3D if you have Chromadepth glasses. But exploring it with no special gear is also depressingly gripping, like doing a scavenger hunt where all the “prizes” are helicopter accidents, drownings, heart failure, or being crushed by a falling mule.

Zooming and clicking the coded icons reveals the details of each tragedy. For example: “Hastrick of Hertfordshire, England climbed over the rock guard wall to take a photo of the rim, not of the Canyon, from the very edge. While holding a camera to his face, Hastrick backed toward the Canyon and fell 333 feet.” And: “Keeling of Brea, CA was discovered decaying after jumping 300-500 feet with a suicide note in his pocket apologizing for the mess (that his body made).”

Different areas of the canyon are notable for their different flavors of death. Toward the south, there’s a large number of planes cratering (especially near a local airport). The aviation activity is understandable, given how people want to view the majestic abyss from the best possible angle, but even so the amount of carnage is boggling. 

Around the canyon’s middle is a thick belt of falls, probable suicides, and what can only be described as cruel acts of god: 

“Concession employee StanIey of Grand Canyon Village argued with his girlfriend, imbibed alcohol, then left to walk on the icy rim,” reads one incident. “On April 4, a Peregrine Fund volunteer noted condors on Stanley's body 300 feet below a jump.” And this one might have you hugging your loved ones: “Heaney of Australia was hiking with three friends and heard loud reports of a rock loosened by recent heavy rains as it dislodged and fell from far above. A piano-sized rock hit Rosalee in passing. Her respirations stopped almost instantly.”








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