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Boy’s death in Death Valley National Park leaves questions

The last time Alicia Sanchez's family heard from her, she sent a text message to tell them she had a flat tire on a gravel road in Death Valley National Park.

What was supposed to be an overnight adventure in the hottest place in the Western Hemisphere turned into five days in hell for the 28-year-old registered nurse from Las Vegas.

Stranded, her Jeep Grand Cherokee buried in the sand in a remote corner of the 3 million-acre park, Sanchez had no choice but to wait for help as the sun drained the life from her and her 11-year-old son.

Rescue arrived in time for one of them.

The events leading up to young Carlos Sanchez's death, the third in the park this year, have authorities baffled. Many questions remain unanswered about the decisions the woman made, including what role a GPS device played in guiding her.

Instead of turning around and returning home after getting a flat tire, she continued on the trail.

And near the end of the road, she left it for a little-used two-track trail that headed into the vast China Lake Naval Weapons Center.

Was she trying to find her way back onto a paved road?

Was she reading her GPS incorrectly?

Or was the GPS wrong?

"Those are a lot of the questions we're not exactly sure have been asked yet," park spokesman Terry Baldino said.

After being found Thursday morning, Sanchez was flown to Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center, where she was in fair condition late Friday. The travel nurse had not been living in Las Vegas for very long, Baldino said.

A spokesman for AMN Healthcare, a staffing company, confirmed that she was an employee. In a profile on one of the company's Web sites, Sanchez talked about working in Ohio and San Antonio before wanting to move somewhere during the summer with her son.

"This summer he will be traveling with me," Sanchez said in the profile. "He is super excited and tells me where he wants to go. It is so funny -- he thinks it's so cool that he gets to go all over the U.S. with me."

Authorities said she left from Las Vegas on Aug. 1 with her son and her Chihuahua. She had 24 16-ounce bottles of water, cheese sandwiches and Pop-Tarts, according to the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Office in California.

Before departing she told various family members different information: that she wanted to see Scotty's Castle and Ubehebe Crater in the north end of the park, but was going to be staying at free campgrounds at the south end of the park, Baldino said.

She ended up taking the Owl Hole Spring Road, a gravel road in the far south of the park that goes from the valley into the Owlshead Mountains. The trail, which requires four-wheel drive, dips briefly into the China Lake Naval Weapons Center before leading to a communications tower.

Shortly after turning onto the trail, the Jeep had a flat tire. Sanchez changed it and left the flattened tire on the side of the road, with a water bottle next to it.

She continued, navigating the 30-mile road nearly until it ends, Baldino said. But where the trail makes a sharp right, she went left down a trail that's not marked on the park's maps.

Why she did it, officials don't know, Baldino said.

On the trail the Jeep fell into a collapsed animal burrow and became stuck, Baldino said.

Over the next few days, as temperatures in the park reached 119 degrees, Sanchez waited by her vehicle. At one point she hiked to a higher elevation to get a cell phone signal but was unsuccessful.

By Wednesday afternoon her son was dead.

Shortly before 5 p.m. that day, her family in Ohio began calling the Metropolitan Police Department to report her missing. Spokesman Bill Cassell said the department took a report but referred them to authorities at the park and in Southern California.

Park rangers conducted a brief search of the north park Wednesday until night fell. They resumed the effort at 6 a.m. Thursday, equipped with a search-and-rescue helicopter borrowed from the China Lake base.

As the helicopter and other rangers searched the north, two rangers searched down south. A female ranger spotted the spare tire on the side of the Owl Hole Spring Road and followed the tracks until she reached Sanchez's Jeep.

"She was extremely dehydrated, and obviously very distraught," Baldino said of Sanchez. "The woman did say the child had died Wednesday afternoon, and she was just barely hanging on."

An autopsy of the boy by the San Bernardino County coroner's office has been scheduled for next week.

The park has seen two similar deaths this year. In the spring an older man went hiking toward sand dunes off of California Highway 190, "overextended himself" and died before he could return to his car, Baldino said.

A little more than two weeks ago, a tour group of Korean nationals went into a dunes area with no water during the hottest part of the day, he said. On the way back to their vehicles, one woman collapsed and died. Three others were treated for serious heat-related illnesses and one was flown to Las Vegas for medical treatment.

San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department Lt. Rick Ells said Sanchez frequently went camping with her son, but he didn't know whether they had previously visited the park.

Baldino said her only directional device was a GPS. She did not have a map or a compass.

"It is extreme out here, and you need to respect and be prepared to visit the park," Baldino said.

Review-Journal writers Henry Brean and Brian Haynes and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact reporter Lawrence Mower at lmower@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0440.

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