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Coroner gets reprieve from deaths in desert

August 25, 2001|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

It's been a busy summer for the Imperial County Coroner's Office.

For two months, according to Chief Deputy Coroner Rick Macken, his office had been working nonstop responding to deaths in the Imperial Valley.

Many of those deaths resulted from extreme summer temperatures, and most, if not all, heat deaths involved immigrants who tried to cross into the United States illegally.

Last week, however, there was a bit of a slowdown in heat-related deaths, and Macken said Friday afternoon he is hopeful the trend will continue.

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That doesn't mean he is confident the deaths will start to decline.

Macken said he is not sure why the lull has occurred since the last heat-related death Monday. What he does know is the slowdown is the first this summer.

That's not to say death does not still hang over the Valley.

On Thursday the body of a man thought to be an immigrant was found in the All-American Canal near Winterhaven. While not minimizing that death, Macken pointed out it was not heat-related.

The last two local heat-related deaths before Monday's occurred Aug. 18.

In both cases, women traveling with their children succumbed to the desert heat while crossing through the Valley illegally. Both women died in the desert area near Ocotillo.

Macken said the quiet that has come in the wake of those deaths may be attributed to a slight drop in temperature over the past week.

He also cautioned that there may be are bodies that have yet to be found in the rugged terrain of the Imperial Valley.

Macken cautioned that there are at least another four weeks of high temperatures in which the desert heat could claim more lives.

U.S. Border Patrol officials agreed, stating there still are several weeks left of the kind of weather that can lead to heat-related deaths.

Border Patrol Agent Arturo Sandoval said all authorities can do is hope the deaths cease but stay prepared to take whatever steps are necessary to save as many lives as possible.

The Border Patrol reported as of Tuesday there had been a total of 80 border-crossing deaths in Imperial County this fiscal year, which started Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 30.

They said in 1998 90 immigrants died, the most ever in the Imperial Valley in one federal fiscal year. They voiced concern that based on the pace of deaths this year, 2001 could match that 1998 rate.

The Coroner's Office data is a bit different than that kept by Border Patrol because it is based on yearly totals of January through December.

Macken's statistics on drownings and heat-related deaths among immigrants this summer include:

· May — three drownings, seven heat-related deaths

· June — four drownings, four heat-related deaths

· July — six drownings, 12 heat-related deaths

· August — four drownings, five heat-related deaths.

"We are hoping this is the end of it for the year," Macken said.

Deputy Coroner Investigator Gary Hayes agreed this week saw the first real break in desert deaths, but he does not think it will be sustained.

He said there likely will be another heat spell before the end of the summer, and with increased heat, there could be an increase in deaths.

"I'm not that optimistic," Hayes said, adding the deaths seem to come in waves.

Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

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