It happens once a year or so in one of the harshest environments on Earth: A tourist gets careless in the heat and learns first-hand how Death Valley got its name.
But Chuck Caha was no tourist.
He knew what the desert could do. He lived through more than 20 Mojave summers, the last five of them on a road crew in Death Valley National Park — maybe the world’s hottest job in the world’s hottest place.
Then on Sept. 19, Caha went to work, and everything went wrong.
The exact sequence of events can’t be known. His son, Jeff, said it probably happened like this: First a tire went flat on Caha’s road grader. Then he discovered his radio was dead. Then he tried to walk five miles back to his pickup.
What happened next is well documented. The 64-year-old Pahrump man collapsed and died alone in triple-digit heat. His body was found on an empty dirt road closed by flooding in North America’s driest place.
His death certificate lists the official cause as asphyxiation brought on by internal bleeding triggered by hyperthermia. Most people call that heat stroke.
“It was not natural causes,” Jeff said. “It was a work-related accident.”
A DEATH WITHOUT PRECEDENT
Death Valley, 100 miles west of Las Vegas, is the largest National Park outside of Alaska. It covers more than 3.3 million acres in California and Nevada, much of it without paved roads or cellphone service.
Park spokeswoman Cheryl Chipman said it’s not unusual for park employees to work alone, but those who plan to spend more than a day in the field are paired up with at least one other employee whenever possible.
Safety protocols call for workers to carry radios when they venture into the remote backcountry. “And they are responsible for charging their own radios and having some form of communication,” Chipman said.
She couldn’t say much about what happened to Caha. The events leading up to his death are under review by both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and an internal Park Service review board.
“The whole incident is still under investigation,” Chipman said, and as part of that process, “all safety procedures are being looked at and evaluated.”
This much she could say: Caha is the first park staff member to die on the job in recent memory, and as far as she knows he is the first ever to die from the heat.
Jeff Caha was at home in New Mexico when he got the news. He was convinced someone, somewhere must have screwed up. He planned to find out who and ensure they are held accountable.
“In my mind if everything had been done right, my dad would be alive,” the 34-year-old said.
The week after Caha’s death, Jeff and his sister, Traci, had a long meeting with Park Service officials, who went over the incident in detail. They discussed safety protocols. They reviewed procedures. They looked at documents, including the maintenance log for the road grader Caha was using.
“I don’t know how much we were supposed to see, but we made sure we saw everything,” Jeff said.
It all pointed to a conclusion that was hard to take.
“A lot of it was my dad’s own fault,” Jeff said. “I don’t think there was any negligence.”
What Caha should have done when his tire went flat — what he’d apparently been trained to do, and had done at least once before — was stay in the air-conditioned cab of the road grader and wait for someone to come get him, Jeff said.
But without a working radio, he knew he’d be out there all day. No one would even know he was stranded until he didn’t come back at the end of his shift.
In the end, Jeff believes his father was done in by a stubborn streak and his own work ethic.
“We just think he didn’t want to sit there all day, because he’d be getting paid and not be doing anything. That’s who he was,” Jeff said. “I don’t blame him, but I’m pissed at him.”
Charles “Chuck” Caha was born Sept. 24, 1948, in David City, a small farm town in eastern Nebraska. After a stint in the Navy during the Vietnam War, he returned to Nebraska, settling about 30 miles farther east in Wahoo.
He grew corn, beans and wheat on about 600 acres until the shrinking margins of family farming sent him west to Pahrump in 1991.
Southern Nevada was on the cusp of a building boom then, so Caha opened a carpet business and rode the wave for 10 years. He sold the business when larger competitors moved in and undercut his prices.
He worked for a few construction companies in Pahrump and then joined the road crew at Death Valley, a job that required a one-hour commute each way but fit nicely with the farmer’s hours he still kept.
Jeff said his dad would get up at 2:30 or 3 in the morning and get to the park maintenance yard in Cow Creek as early 4 a.m. to drink coffee and catch up on paperwork before the crew’s morning briefing.
His idea of fun was to “sit inside a big toy all day,” Jeff said. “He loved to drive equipment.”
But he didn’t want to do it forever. Caha was just five days shy of his 65th birthday when he died. He planned to retire in January, then go to New Mexico and help his son renovate his house.
“He literally was counting the days,” Jeff said.
After the morning meeting broke up on Sept. 19, Caha drove a pickup to the south end of the park, climbed aboard the grader and set to work on a stretch of West Side Road damaged by flash flooding in late July.
Jeff said his dad was supposed to be paired with someone that day, but the man missed work because of a death in the family.
Records indicate Caha’s radio was working when he headed out, but there’s no way to know how much life it had left in its battery or when it was last charged, Jeff said.
He headed north on the grader, scraping about 10 miles of road before turning around and starting back toward his pickup. He was about halfway there when the tire blew.
He might have saved himself by driving on the flat, but he never would have risked damaging the grader like that, Jeff said.
He had water with him when he set out walking, but he misjudged the distance, the heat and his own condition.
Even on a cool day, it would have been slow going for his dad, Jeff said. He smoked all his life and his back and ankles bothered him, so he wasn’t exactly a hiker.
According to the National Weather Service, the official high in Death Valley that day was 104, but it could have been significantly hotter on the shadeless stretch of road where Caha died.
Jeff was told it was at least 110 degrees when his dad started his walk, and it may have topped out at 115.
When Caha didn’t return to the park’s maintenance yard that afternoon, his coworkers tried to raise him on the radio. Then they jumped into a truck and raced out to look for him.
Jeff said it took them about 45 minutes to get to his dad.
“The guy who found him was his boss,” he said.
IN AN UNFORGIVING PLACE
Jeff doesn’t blame his father’s coworkers or the Park Service for what happened, but he wants to see some new safety measures at Death Valley. A few simple changes — like equipping vehicles with radio chargers and requiring workers in the field to check in every hour or two — could prevent another death in the park.
Jeff said his dad walked for about four miles before he collapsed in the road a half-mile from his pickup.
His body was found within sight of Ashford Mill, an abandoned mining settlement that is now a popular stop for tourists at the southern end of the park. At least it’s popular when it’s open. In another bit of bad luck for Caha, the only paved route through that part of Death Valley was badly damaged by the same flooding that washed out West Side Road.
At almost any other time, he might have been able to flag down a passing motorist. But on that day every road around him was closed, and had been for months. As the heat overtook him, the nearest tourist was 30 miles away.
So many little things went wrong that day. None of them, by itself, probably would have been fatal. Even now, Jeff said, his father’s situation doesn’t sound all that dangerous, except that it killed him.
“If he had called me the next day and been bitching about how he had a flat and had to walk four miles, I wouldn’t have blinked an eye,” he said.
“That’s what’s so hard. I can close my eyes and picture him walking down that road,” Jeff said. “I bet he was cussing like crazy.”
Review-Journal writer Richard Lake contributed to this report. Contact reporter Henry Brean at email@example.com or 702-383-0350. You can find him on Twitter at @RefriedBrean.