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Man Dies of Thirst in Desert During Survival Program

What matters more: The Customer's welfare or his quest?
Rick Archer, May 2007

Editor's Note:  This story appeared in the Houston Chronicle in May 2007. It covers the ordeal of Dave Bushow, a man who died of thirst in the desert even though his guides carried water.  

The incident took place in July 2006.  However the story you are about to read was published in the Chronicle in May 2007.  This the story was retold a year later when many facts in the story become available through the Freedom of Information Act. 

This story is a fascinating read because it calls directly into judgment the actions of Mr. Bushow's guides during his ordeal. 


Houston Chronicle
ED WHITE, Associated Press Writer
May 2, 2007, 4:24PM

BOULDER, Utah

It was Day 2 in the blazing Utah desert. Dave Buschow was in bad shape.  Pale, wracked by cramps, his speech slurred, the 29-year-old New Jersey man was desperate for water and hallucinating so badly he mistook a tree for a person.

After going roughly 10 hours without a drink in the 100-degree heat, he finally dropped dead of thirst, face down in the dirt, less than 100 yards from the goal: a cave with a pool of water.

But Buschow was no solitary soul, lost and alone in the desert. He and 11 other hikers from various walks of life were being led by expert guides on a wilderness-survival adventure designed to test their physical and mental toughness.

And the guides, it turned out, were carrying emergency water on that torrid summer day.

However Buschow wasn't told that.  He wasn't offered any water for a reason - the guides did not want him to fail the $3,175 course.

They wanted him to dig deep, push himself beyond his known limits, and make it to the cave on his own.

Nearly a year later, documents obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act reveal those and other previously undisclosed details of what turned out to be a death march for Buschow. They also raise questions about the judgments and priorities of the guides at the Boulder Outdoor Survival School. What matters more: the customer's welfare or his quest?

"It was so needless. What a shame. It didn't have to happen," said Ray Gardner, the Garfield County sheriff's deputy who hiked six miles to recover Buschow's body. "They had emergency water right there. I would have given him a drink."

The family members were furious.

"Down in those canyons it's like a furnace," said Rob Buschow of Glen Spey, N.Y.

"I don't have my brother anymore because no one would give him water."

While regretting the tragedy, the school, known as BOSS, has denied any negligence and instead blamed Buschow, saying the security officer and former Air Force airman did not read course materials, may have withheld health information and may have eaten too heavily before leaving River Vale, N.J., for the grueling course.

Noting Buschow signed liability waivers, the school said: "Mr. Buschow expressly assumed the risk of serious injury or death prior to participating."

Garfield County authorities declined to file charges, saying there was insufficient evidence the school acted with criminal negligence. The prosecutor said participants knew they were taking a risk.

The U.S. Forest Service, however, has stopped BOSS from using Dixie National Forest for a portion of the 28-day course this summer until it gets outside advice on providing food and water.

The agency said it was the first death of a participant in a BOSS survival exercise.

The Colorado-based school dates to the late 1960s. In 1994, BOSS alumnus Josh Bernstein, a New Yorker with an Ivy League education, took over marketing and administration and later became owner. He also is host of the History Channel's "Digging for the Truth," a show that takes viewers on archaeological adventures around the world.

BOSS has wilderness courses lasting just a few days to a month. During the 28-day survival course, held 250 miles from Salt Lake City, campers are required to hike for miles and drink what they can find from natural sources.

BOSS emphasizes personal growth through adversity, and using your wits to survive. The mantra: "Know more, carry less."

Tent, matches, compass, sleeping bag, portable stove, watch all have no role. Campers are equipped with a knife, water cup, blanket and poncho and are told they could lose 20 pounds or more. Among the things they learn is how to catch fish with their hands and how to kill a sheep with a knife.

The course is intended to push people "past those false limits your mind has set for your body."

"Somewhere along the many miles of sagebrush flats, red rock canyons, and mesa tops of Southern Utah somewhere between the thirst, the hunger and the sweat you'll discover the real destination: yourself," BOSS says on its Web site.

Buschow had marched the arctic tundra in Greenland. And after leaving the Air Force, he worked security at U.S. bases outside the country. He recalled his days as a Boy Scout in his May 2006 application to BOSS.

"Although in the yrs since, I have continued to appreciate Mother Nature," he wrote by hand, "I still haven't ever truly immersed myself in her embrace. I fear that I'm becoming a 'comfort camper,' having never come close to looking her in the eyes."

Buschow described himself as 5-foot-7 and about 180 pounds, with a resting pulse of 66. A New York doctor checked a box declaring him fit for a survival program. Buschow signed the application, acknowledging that BOSS was not offering a "risk-free wilderness experience."

The documents obtained by the AP disclose the brief but bitter wilderness adventure of Buschow:

On July 16, he gathered here with the 11 others, including some from England and a college student who had bicycled from Maine. Most were in their 20s and 30s. They ran 1 1/2 miles so the staff could assess their conditioning.

Buschow "was not the most in-shape but not the most out of shape either," recalled camper Charlie DeTar, 25, the cross-country bicyclist.

On the second day, after a cool night, the group set out around sunrise and stopped about 8:30 a.m. to dip their cups into Deer Creek in what turned out to be the only water until evening. Buschow pulled a bottle from his pack but was warned by the staff not to fill it.

During the early phase of the expedition, participants can drink water at the source only and cannot carry it with them.

The group, led by three guides, formed a loose chain, with stronger hikers ahead of people struggling at the 6,000-foot elevation, or more than a mile above sea level.

"We didn't cover all that much distance, maybe five to six miles. We were moving slowly, a lot of up and down," DeTar said in an interview from Vermont. "You don't have food, you don't have water, so you have to move at the slowest pace of the group."

They rested periodically under pinons and junipers, all the while looking for signs of water, such as green vegetation in canyon bottoms. At least two attempts to dig for water failed.

Not everyone had close contact with Buschow, but a consensus emerges from the campers' written accounts obtained by the AP: While cheerful, encouraging and coherent at times, he was a man in deep trouble hours before he collapsed.

"We were all desperate for water," a camper wrote. "Every time (Buschow) would fall or lie down, it took a huge amount of effort to pick him back up. His speech was thick and his mouth swollen."

"Every time he continued, he'd rush ahead, often in the wrong direction and so exhausting himself even more," the camper wrote.

The sun was described as blazing, inescapable. "There were no clouds," a camper wrote.

Some people vomited that day, including a man who got sick three times a typical misery on the rigorous course, according to BOSS. Buschow was suffering from leg cramps about 2:30 p.m. and said he was feeling "bad."

During a break, he mistook a tree for a person and said, "There she is."

"This was the first point at which I became concerned knowing that delirium happens when dehydration becomes severe," a camper wrote. Buschow "also asked if there was much air traffic that went through here, and asked if anyone had a signal mirror."

(The Forest Service, citing privacy concerns, deleted certain names from documents.)

By 7 p.m., as the sun descended and temperatures cooled a bit, the group approached a cave in Cottonwood Canyon, known to BOSS guides as a reliable source of water.

Buschow's companions were carrying his possessions for him. Within earshot of people exhilarated about the pool of water, he collapsed for the last time.

"He said he could not go on," staff member Shawn O'Neal wrote two days later in a statement ordered by the Garfield County Sheriff's Office. "I felt that he could make it this short distance and told him he could do it as I have seen many students sore, dehydrated and saying 'can't' do something only to find that they have strength beyond their conceived limits."

O'Neal didn't inform Buschow about his emergency water.

"I wanted him to accomplish getting to the water and the cave for rest," he wrote. "He asked me to go get the water for him. I said I was not going to leave him. ... Shortly thereafter I had a bad feeling and turned to Dave and found no sign of breathing.

A staff apprentice climbed to the top of a dead juniper to get reception for a cellular call to the Boulder office.

Five people took turns trying to revive Buschow while red biting ants crawled over his face. A rescue helicopter from Page, Ariz., arrived about 90 minutes after he passed out, but a defibrillator failed to jump-start his heart. Campers gathered in a circle for the news: "Dave is dead."

They had a moment of silence and ate almonds, sesame sticks and energy bars distributed by staff, the first food since sandwiches more than 24 hours earlier.

Buschow's death was caused by dehydration and electrolyte imbalance, according to Dr. Edward Leis, Utah's deputy chief medical examiner, who found no evidence of drugs or other factors.

After Buschow's death, five people left the course. The six campers who completed the exercise returned to the site to leave a bouquet of foliage and a marker of stones.

DeTar, a camper who performed CPR, said no one was told that BOSS guides carried emergency water, but "I heard it slosh" in a pack.

Should the water have been offered to Buschow? And if it's for an emergency, what triggers it?

"Hard to say," said DeTar, who has a master's degree from Dartmouth College and is trained in wilderness first aid. "One thing that BOSS offers you is an opportunity to push yourself physically into the red zone. ... He was 200 feet from the water.  Is that the point where you give it to him? Or 500 feet?"

Bernstein, the school's owner, agreed to answer questions only by e-mail. He said BOSS instructors can give water based on their assessment of a camper's needs.

"The group appeared to be within the normal parameters we've seen on the trail over the years," Bernstein said. "Many hikers were, understandably, tired, but morale was high and the participants were determined to continue. ... He seemed capable of completing the hike to camp that evening."

In a Feb. 27 letter to the Forest Service, Bernstein said Buschow may not have trained properly, pointing to comments he made to another camper about drinking a gallon of water a day and eating cheese steaks to bulk up before the expedition.

His brother, Rob Buschow, said: "It's sickening when they blame the victim."

 

You Be the Judge

Obviously in retrospect, if the guides had known how serious Mr. Buschow's condition was, they would have given Mr. Buschow the much-needed water.

Similar incidents have been reported with teenagers dying in the summer heat as they underwent conditioning exercises to prepare for football season.  Coaches will withhold water to toughen them up, a very risky move.  Heat and football are a dangerous mix. For example, a professional football player from the Vikings died of heat stroke during training camp in August 2001.
 
And of course Boot Camp Drill Instructors are legendary for pushing recruits to their limits. 

Who decides when enough is enough? 

In the case of Mr. Buschow, what do you think the courts will decide?  

Email your thoughts to Rick Archer, dance@ssqq.com  

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