A weak apology

Lassen Park head’s statement on boy’s death doesn’t go far enough

Darlene M. Koontz, the superintendent of Lassen Volcanic National Park, issued a press release Monday (March 15) that appears to be the park’s official statement about the death of a 9-year-old Red Bluff boy, Tommy Botell, on the trail last July 29. It’s headlined “Lassen Peak Trail Accident was Unforeseen.”

Well, that’s certainly true. Of course nobody knew, when Tommy and his family started up the trail, that he and his 13-year-old sister, Katrina, would sit down on a rock-and-mortar retaining wall partway to the summit and that the wall would give way, fatally crushing him and seriously injuring her.

“We are so sorry this accident occurred,” Koontz says in the release. “In the long history of the trail, there is no record of anything similar to this accident and we had no idea that this rock wall would fail in such a manner.”

No? What about the National Park Service’s own investigation report on the accident, released in mid-January, which acknowledges that the NPS had known since 2002 that the walls were unstable? Specifically, the report states, they were insufficiently ballasted when they were put in and vulnerable to snow loading, erosion from water runoff and human foot traffic. They were, the report states, “highly susceptible to rotational forces which could cause them to tumble down the mountainside.”

Yes, Tommy’s death was unforeseen, but enough was known about the trail to warrant commonsensical preventive action, if only the placement of signs warning of the walls’ instability. Some 25,000 people hike the Lassen Peak trail every summer, and obviously there was a risk that eventually someone’s safety would be jeopardized.

We don’t doubt the sincerity of Superintendent Koontz’s statement. We know Tommy’s death was traumatic for her and her staff. But their trauma was nothing compared to the pain suffered by Tommy’s parents and other family members. They deserve to hear the superintendent say, “I’m sorry. We failed. We should have let you know that wall was unsafe, and we didn’t.”