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The Verde Independent | Cottonwood, Arizona

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10/14/2009 8:04:00 AM
Teamwork: Verde Valley Fire talks about Angel Valley rescue
VVN/Jon Hutchinson
Verde Valley Fire Chief Jerry Doerksen and Public Information Officer Merry Shanks explain the emergency response and answer questions for the press at the mass casualty event tragedy at the Angel Valley Retreat last Thursday.
VVN/Jon Hutchinson Verde Valley Fire Chief Jerry Doerksen and Public Information Officer Merry Shanks explain the emergency response and answer questions for the press at the mass casualty event tragedy at the Angel Valley Retreat last Thursday.

Jon Hutchinson
Staff Reporter

There is much finger-pointing in the wake of two sweat lodge deaths at the Angel Valley Retreat. Yavapai county building officials say they issued no building permit for the temporary sweat lodge structure measuring 20- by 20-feet in which 68 participants crowded around steaming rocks.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Spiritual Warrior self-help instructor James Arthur Ray, Howard Bragman, disputes that Ray's staff built the structure saying that Ray's contract with the Angel Valley spiritual retreat called for Angel Valley to "design and construct" the sweat lodge.

Three people remain hospitalized, one in critical condition, one is listed as fair and one in good condition at the Flagstaff Medical Center.

Meanwhile, the chief of the Verde Valley Fire District, Jerry Doerksen, and his public information officer, Merry Shanks, told the press Monday about what they described as the "most significant mass casualty event the Verde Valley has ever experienced" from a medical emergency.

The fire officials avoided references to details of the Sweat Lodge deaths at the Angel Valley Retreat that could "jeopardize the investigation" that the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office is now conducting. They did detail the logistical events that played out for the nine rescue agencies that had roles in the emergency beginning Thursday afternoon. Doerksen said the incident will be studied to determine how such rescues can be addressed in the future.

"We've never seen anything like this before."

The fire agencies will also take a close look at sweat lodges to determine if any additional oversight is needed. Right now anyone may assemble such a sauna-like structure in the back yard, Doerksen admitted.

"We don't want to restrict" such cleansing ceremonies that people celebrate as a religious event, "but people also die in hot tubs.

"Most are small and occur on private property," he said.

Fire companies check to make sure the fire outside the structure used to heat rocks is not a threat to neighbors.

Because of the distance and difficult Forest Road, it took the first responders 21 minutes to reach the retreat 6.5 miles south of West Sedona and east of the Sedona Wastewater plant.

The chief said the initial report indicated that two people had suffered cardiac arrest and a third had been burned. Doerksen said it is unusual for two people to have cardiac arrest at the same time so two engine companies were sent.

The burn patient, burned from a source outside the sweat lodge, was put into a helicopter. The Verde Valley fire chief said that it is impossible to treat a cardiac arrest patient in a helicopter. Those victims were taken by ground ambulance to Verde Valley Medical Center, where 40-year-old James Shore of Milwaukee and 38-year-old Kirby Brown of Westtown, N.Y., were pronounced dead.

When Doerksen arrived as incident commander, all of the victims were already outside the domed structure. He said that "as the number of patients increased, the critical patients were getting worse and those getting better were improving." He kept calling for more support.

Seven ambulances were used, plus three medical helicopters.

The sweat lodge was tested for hazards. "Testing did not find anything," Doerksen said

He noted, however, that the Sheriff's Office is now having the state crime lab do additional tests.

The case was a particular challenge since communication is difficult in the Angel Valley area.

"There is no cell phone service, none of the victims had identification on them and they did not know each other," Doerksen said.

He applauded the ongoing work of the Sedona Fire District in establishing communication repeaters that allowed the crews to communicate on a single channel in the hidden valley.

He also applauded the teamwork that has evolved among the various Verde Valley agencies through the mutual aid system. "It was like we had one agency not, six, seven or eight."

Since so many crews were working on the mass casualty event, several Verde Valley Fire District crewmembers, who were off-duty at the time, helped to man stations and protect the public, in case of an unrelated incident.

Seven Trauma Intervention Program volunteers were also brought to the scene to help with emotional care and communicating with family members.

Doerksen gave advice on ways to avoid heat-related situations, especially when there is a large number of people in a small area, He suggests: don't get too hot and limit your stay. Don't stay in the heat simply because others remain, especially if you feel light headed or short of breath.

Symptoms include a change in your breathing pattern, rapid pulse, lack of oxygen or lack of fluids and dehydration.

The Sheriff's Office says the victims of the of the Spiritual Warrior wealth building seminars, led by self-help guru James Arthur Ray, arrived Saturday and by Tuesday began a Vision Quest that included a 36-hour period of fasting and spiritual exercises. By daybreak on Thursday, participants were given breakfast and urged to drink water. The sweat lodge experience began about 3 p.m. Two hours later, when 58 hot rocks had been placed in the sweat lodge and doused with water to create steam, participants were being dragged to the doors of the dome as they fell ill

The dome was constructed for the particular event by James Ray's staff and has been used there by Ray in the past.

Ray, who has been featured in the past on "Oprah," "Larry King Live" and the "Today" show, was questioned at the scene, but refused to give a statement and left the area.

On his Web site, Ray said, in part, "I am shocked and saddened by the tragedy that occurred at Spiritual Warrior in Sedona" and expressed his condolences and prayers for a speedy recovery. However, he said, "because there are more questions than answers at this time I believe it inappropriate to comment further until we know more."

Taylor Waste
Related Stories:
• Sweat lodge deaths now a homicide case; Deputies search Ray's California headquarters
• Investigators seek answers in deaths, illness during sweat lodge ceremony
• Two die, 19 ill in sweat lodge incident

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Reader Comments

Posted: Thursday, October 15, 2009
Article comment by: Jesse D

Sedona is more well known in the media...

Posted: Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Article comment by: SANDRA E. KEETON

Why was this Sad event publicy announced as having occurred in Sedona, Az., rather than it's actual location?

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