What started out to be a glorious day of snowshoeing at Mt Rainier National Park turned into a not so glorious way to spend the first day of 2012. We never in a million years would have expected to be in a place where an armed mad man was on the loose shooting at people in a National Park. The whole experience was intense, at times frightening, and totally surreal.
My love for photography as a hobby led me to take many photos of the day. It is natural for me to capture what I see and this day was no exception. Keep in mind that most of these pictures were taken by a person under duress and I certainly do not claim to be an expert or professional. I just like to snap away.
I stated the day by getting up early as I couldn't wait to get up to the mountains. My boyfriend and I packed up our gear as quickly as we could so we could get on the road. We were so excited to try out our new Jetboil backpacking stove. I had made homemade soup and couldn't wait to heat it up and have a nice warm meal up in the cold and snowy back country. We also packed hot chocolate and spiced cider and fruit and nuts.
The sun was still coming up as we were on our way up to the park. The morning sky was pretty and I liked the soft colors in the clouds and the outline of the mountains in the distance.
The entrance into the park was quiet as it was still fairly early and we were so happy to actually be up and out of the house at a decent hour for a change. We are known for getting a late start but not this time.
Longmire is where there is a check point to make sure visitors have appropriate traction tires and chains if required. There is a lodge and restaurant here at this popular destination. When we arrived the road was still closed to go further up into the park. We were told at the main ranger station that it should open at 9:30am and it was. We were the first car to go through this point and we were thrilled at the prospect of getting up there before the crowds.
As we rounded the corner and the Visitor's Center became visible, I was thinking what a beautiful job they did on this building. We had been once before and knew that it was just as impressive on the inside. Little did we know at this point that we would be spending thirteen hours in that building on this day.
We were directed by the parking attendants to park next to the only other visitor car in the lot at this point. The first thing I wanted to do was to jump out and shoot a pic of the mountain and I was in such a hurry that I just used my iPhone 4 ( all of these photos were taken with, and some were edited on my phone using apps) and this one I used 6X7 camera but I did crop it. The sky was stunning with a cap of clouds around the top of this majestic volcano. I thought how we were so absolutely fortunate to be in this place at this time with such perfect weather for snowshoeing. I just couldn't wait to get up there and take in the beauty of this National Park.
I then turned around to take in the scenery behind me and loved how the sun was shining on the icy parking lot and the park employee was standing there waiting to direct cars. The views are spectacular even from this vantage point and I was especially appreciative of this as often times when the weather is not so inviting the visibility is next to nothing. I was thinking that I should drag out my Nikon dslr and shoot some photos from this point but decided that I would wait until we were up the trail a ways. After this shot, I took a video and then all hell was about to break loose.
I had most of my gear on but decided that I was going to get too warm because the sun was shining and there was little to no wind so I removed my down coat and was going to attach it to my pack. My boyfriend and I were standing behind his jeep wrestling with our stuff when all of the sudden the park staff began yelling: get inside the building NOW!!!! One of my snowshoes was stuck on my foot and I was looking at the mountain thinking that maybe an avalanche was occurring. One man yelled: this is an EMERGENCY!!!!!! Get into the building NOW!!!! Brian dropped his stuff in the back of the jeep and helped me get my snowshoe off and I grabbed my pack and my coat as they were already in my hands. We were quickly ushered into the visitor center and the doors were locked behind us. It was 10:30am. We were in shock and we were only hearing little bits and pieces here and there. We heard that a heavily armed individual was shooting at people only a short distance away.
Once we were settled inside we watched and listened. Brian is one to pay close attention to details in situations like these so that he can try to be prepared just in case things take a sudden turn for the worse. At times the staff would move with a sense of urgency and with definite purpose like this guy here walking toward the doors. Most of us sat wide eyed and full of anxiety as we could only guess what was going on.
The visitor center is two levels. The upper level has a balcony with huge windows and awesome views. At first visitors were milling around up there but park employees quickly made it clear that we were to stay downstairs and away from the windows. The gunman was out there and therefor it was too dangerous. The ground floor has steel walls on one side and the other side had snow piled up covering the windows. It felt like a fairly safe fortress but not knowing the gunman's motives at this time, we just didn't know what to expect.
Some people were still up on the mountain as all of this unfolded. Park workers would go upstairs and watch out of the windows while staying crouched down looking for hikers and skiers as they came off the of the mountain. They would scurry downstairs and out to open the doors to let them in. There were two sets of doors all glass with a foyer in between. The outer doors had a solid wood door that could be shut and locked. A sanding truck was parked in front of the outer door for added protection. The public restrooms were out in the foyer and we were not allowed out there. We had to use the one restroom downstairs which was interesting with 100 plus people in lock down inside this building.
The photo above shows the stress as seen on the above face and the man in the background watching the door. It was hard for anyone to relax.
There were some very intense moments as we watched the demeanor and body language of the park staff. At one point one of them burst through the doors from the outside looking as if he might throw up. He walked up to the staff at the main desk and then they discussed things and one woman looked like she was in tears. We just sat and wondered and could only speculate. Perhaps they had received bad news.
We did hear rumors that a female park ranger was shot and we just hoped and prayed that she was going to make it. We also heard that another ranger was shot inside his vehicle and that four bullets hit all around him but that he was able to escape.
Something to note is the fact that none of these park employees were armed. We were sitting ducks really and one might ponder the thought that maybe they should be armed and trained on how to use a weapon. I was wondering if they were ever going to get police up there to help protect us but there is only one road up and out of that place and we were at the end of it! We listened to see if we could hear the sound of helicopters hoping that maybe they would send more help up to us.
The park staff did an amazing job of entertaining the kids with junior ranger projects and each time a youngster would reach the status of JPR, we would get an announcement and applause would follow. They kept us all as comfortable as possible and offered books and playing cards for us to use while we were there. Looking back on the situation, it is truly admirable how the staff continued to perform their duties under duress and also how they had to be filled with grief as they learned about the fate of their friend and co-worker Margaret Anderson. We as visitors did not know anything about this at this time but would later find out and you will see as you read on.
As time went on and daylight hours were coming to an end, we all began to wonder if we would make it out of there that day. The hope of that was dwindling with each passing hour.
It was about 3 o'clock when Brian and I were sitting at a picnic table near the entrance with three of our new found friends when all of the sudden the doors burst open and in rushed law enforcement with rifles and SWAT gear. They began to shout: everybody down on the floor and put your hands on your head! We quickly jumped to floor and did as they said. The floor was concrete and hard and cold. This is the first time that I have ever had a weapon pointed at my face as the officers scanned the crowd with careful scrutiny. The one in command quickly explained that they had to do what they were doing and he would explain later. They walked through looking at each of us as if they were trying to identify someone. They had a sketch in their hands. They searched our building. I began to fear that possibly the gunman was amongst us and if that were true, bullets may fly. My back was hurting from this uncomfortable position and I scooted up against the bench seat of the picnic table to lean up against it. I was shaking uncontrollably due to the chill and also it was a natural reaction to the stress. The woman sitting next to me reached out and asked if I was okay. A simple little gesture was a great comfort. My boyfriend, Brian, was sitting on the other side of the picnic table from me and I was really wishing that he was closer.
They asked if anyone was armed. One gentleman raised his hand and said that he was an off duty police officer. They checked his identification and then allowed him to keep his weapon. Brian raised his hand too. He is not a police officer but rather a private citizen with a concealed pistol permit. They first told Brian that if he reached for his gun he would be shot. They then came over to him and asked where his gun was and they respectfully took it from him and explained that he would get it back before he leaves.
After law enforcement had everything secure they told us we could put our hands down. The one in command then announced that one of their own had been murdered just a quarter of a mile down the road. We were all devastated to hear the news that we did not want to hear. He explained there was a man hunt in progress and that we were going to spend some time together. We were then allowed to sit in our seats and get up off of the floor. We were told to stay put and in one spot for awhile. I am sure that they just wanted to get control of the situation.
They quickly allowed us to line up for the restroom and they took us four at a time to the public restroom that we were previous not allowed to use. We now had armed protection at the outer door which allowed us the ability to go into the foyer and get to larger bathroom.
This small group of police officers (about four or five) arrived in an armored vehicle. The one in charge had told me that he had been working in the Crystal Mountain area when he was called to come to our area. There is no short way to commute from Crystal to Paradise as many roads in the park are closed in the winter. He had to drive around via hwy 410 and through Orting and Eatonville. I would imagine that it took time to gather up a team as well. It sounds like it was quite a task to secure the road with the gunman there firing at people.
People were asking if they could go to their cars and get food, gear, and diapers for the babies. They were told that no one was going to be allowed to risk life to cross the parking lot in the daylight especially to get these things. After dark, they did take a few people out to get medications and one family had their pet dog in the car which they did get an escort out to get the dog. The temperatures were well below freezing.
That is the face of pup who is too big but awfully glad to be sitting in his owners lap. What a sweet dog. He was nervous and uneasy but in fine shape. His owners said that they knew that dogs are not allowed in the park but had only planned to be there for a short period of time and figured he would be fine in the car for a few minutes. Who could have known what the day would be like.
One man told me that his party had just left the parking lot to head up the hill on snowshoes when they barely heard the directions from park personnel for people to get inside the building. He thought that they were just trying to gather up a group for a snowshoe outing. When they returned down to the parking lot later in the day they looked onto a scene that looked like one from a movie set. It looked out of place as the cars were left with trunk doors open as well as car doors and gear and sledding equipment was scattered around the ground and absolutely no people were in sight. As they approached the scene they spotted a park ranger who was crouched next to a car and motioning for them to come over. They were instructed to cross the parking lot and get inside the building.
They allowed us to use the phone when possible to call home. We had no cell service up here. There was phone at the desk that they allowed us to use when they could but there was usually a line. A pay phone in the foyer was easier to get to. In the evening hours, the foyer was full of SWAT who were gearing up to go out on snowshoes. There were probably about thirty of them at one point that I counted.
By this time it is getting late and people are trying to find places to sleep. This man is stretched out on the concrete floor. An officer is in the background watching the door. We were asked if we would like to risk an evacuation or if we would rather stay here for the night. The only folks who chose to stay were the ones who still had camping gear in the mountains. So plans to get us down the mountain were in the works but the plans would change several times. At one point we were rousted up to pack up and get ready and then we would be told that the plans were canceled due to the fact that the FBI was at the crime scene and the road was not secure. We all totally understood the situation and were prepared to accept whatever was decided. The next thing we knew we were called upon to help bring more supplies into the building that had been brought up for us. We were asked if we would like to help and of course we were ready.
We gathered in the foyer and prepared to wait for the supplies. We got more water, gatorade, hot water for tea and hot chocolate, and a few other things. You can see the small hatch that opens to the outside. The sanding truck is still parked across the entrance to provide cover. We figured at this point that we were going to probably be here all night.
We soon learned a SWAT team was on the way to secure the building across the parking lot where the blankets and pillows were. They had to clear the area and make it safe before these items could be accessed.
In all of this stress and commotion we met some amazing new friends who we shared a picnic table with. We had some great conversation and were very grateful for their company. The people who we were brought together with to share this less than desirable experience helped to make a bad situation so much better.
We learned that we were most likely spending the night here. We got pillows and blankets and tried to figure out how we would sleep five people at a picnic table. Let's just say no one got any sleep.
Around midnight we were informed that we were going to be evacuating. The decision was made that it would be safer to do this during the dark of the night rather than wait for daylight hours. The officer in charge systematically organized the drivers of the cars and took about 5 people at a time to pull their cars into formation out front. Then the drivers came back inside to wait until the sanding truck and police car were ready. We lined up at the door in the foyer and at this point right before we exited the building, Brian's pistol was returned to him with the clip removed. The officer asked Brian not to load it until we were out of there. Brian said that he would wait until we got home and the officer told him that he could load it as soon as he was in his car. We were then escorted outside and hurried into our vehicles. We sat in formation until everything was set which was not long at all.
Once inside the jeep I took a photo of the sanding truck that was parked in front of the entrance. There here was our fortress and I am so in love that building now more than ever.
Looking out the driver's window we can see the truck that is going to lead the way and it has on board an armed SWAT dude.
Here we go and we are first in line of this caravan of about five cars. We are the second group to leave. The roads are a solid sheet of ice.
We soon drove past the crime scene which is here. The vehicle sideways in the road we later found out belonged to the park ranger who was shot. This was a very gut wrenching sight.
We figured this to be the suspect's car which he abandoned as he shot about 10 shots which were heard by some of the snowshoers who were up on the mountain. We figured that we did not hear the shots due to the sanding equipment in the parking lot at the time. The suspect escaped on foot out into the wilderness. At this point, we had no idea where he was. No one really knew what equipment he had with him so it was unknown how well he was prepared for the conditions.
We can hardly wait to get out of this park on this particular night. At Longmire we were handed off to another police car to take us the rest of the way to the Ashford Fire Station where we would be debriefed by the FBI. It took about one hour to reach the station.
The news crews were all parked here at the fire station hoping to get the story.
The folks were very accommodating bringing in chairs and offering hot chocolate and restrooms. We each were taken individually to speak to an agent about what we saw.
Finally, we get to go home. I think we got home about 3am.
I am so very grateful to all of the men and women who were working at Paradise on this day. They risked their own lives to help people into the building by going into the parking lot to direct the descending hikers and skiers. They sanded the roads so that we could evacuate. The cafeteria workers prepared food to feed us. They deserve a great deal of praise. They stopped charging for food and allowed us to take what we needed as it became apparent that we would be there for an extended period of time. Many of us asked if we could donate money and did as we know that the park is running on a limited budget.
The park rangers and law enforcement officers were amazing as well. I cannot even express in words how profoundly thankful I am to them.
I have deep sorrow for the family of Margaret Anderson. My thoughts and prayers go out to them. She paid the ultimate sacrifice to stop the vehicle of that gunman and if she had not done so, one can only imagine what might have happened. He was minutes away from reaching a parking full of men, women, and children. I have not been able to get this out of my mind. I am heart sick for Margaret's children and husband. What a horrible tragedy.
One other thing that I would like to mention is the fact that I also have my concealed pistol permit. I did not bring mine on this particular occasion because I figured that Brian had his so I decided not to worry about it. Let me tell you that I will not make this mistake again. You just never know and we could have easily been separated. I agree that a pistol is no match for a rifle but it is better than nothing. Also to note is the fact that the news media reported that if the law had not passed to allow concealed carry in national parks, that this tragedy would not have taken place. What an ignorant statement!