Many of us have a morbid side. Be it good or bad – it’s there. I remember visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time, and the “souvenir” that caught my eye in the store was a book detailing the cases of those who had died there. While reading it was chilling and infinitely sad, it also grew my regard for the majesty and deadly power of nature and made me recognize how little we generally respect it.
In that vein, I decided to put together some of the tales the Traxplorio team has unearthed as we visit and review America’s hot springs. These are tales of tragedy, mystery, and horrific murder that are certainly not for the faint-hearted, but lessons can be learned from them – not least as a sobering reminder that visitors need to follow the rules and recommendations set out by the site owners/managers and to modify our behavior as tourists when visiting.
Before you read on, please remember that deaths can happen anywhere, anytime. The responsibility is on our own shoulders to take the right precautions to protect ourselves and our loved ones. By naming where these poor people passed, I in no way seek to damage the reputations of the hot springs, and I highly recommend each of them as a place of beauty to enjoy a soak in – but we advise you to do so with forethought, respect, and utmost care.
A Drink-Drowning (Juntura Hot Springs, OR)
To one side of the main pool of the Juntura Hot Springs, located by Oregon Highway 20, you’ll see a memorial cross dedicated to a young man who drowned in the hot springs in 2006. He is alleged to have spent a couple of hours soaking there with his father. According to local news sites, his father stepped out to dry and dress, and when he turned back, his son was face-down in the water. Police at the time said they suspect alcohol was involved in his death.
A Calculated Murder (Wild Horse Hot Springs, MO)
In May 2013, Polson resident Melvin Madplume Jr. turned up drunk at Wild Horse Hot Springs with his cousin Laurence Kenmille. After some time spent soaking, Madplume left the tub and went to the staff claiming his cousin had slipped and hit his head. One year later, Madplume was charged with raping and killing his cousin and was given a life sentence without parole. District Judge John Larson said the crime was “horrendous and calculated.”
The tragedy rocked the hot springs and local community, and, for a while, Wild Horse was shut down. The pool in which Kenmille died has since been sealed up.
Biohazard Or Politics? (Miracle Hot Springs, CA)
In October 2022, Miracle Hot Springs, a popular destination for locals and tourists, were destroyed by local law enforcement after a man died there. The authorities responded to the death by shutting down the area, breaking open and draining the tubs, and declaring it a “biohazard zone.”
The decision was made after LEI Rangers reported that the deceased man had AIDS. All the tubs were destroyed within 24 hours, despite the one where the man was found being unconnected to the other four. Locals were suspicious, as the body was removed within 45 minutes, and the pools destroyed before an autopsy confirmed the diagnosis of AIDS.
Deputy District Ranger G.W. Hitchcock told news outlet Bakersfield.com that many areas along the river, including Miracle Hot Springs, had seen three times the number of users since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
“With more people often comes more problems,” he said, noting that there had been “several incidents of drug use, vagrancy, even fatalities,” which law enforcement said had included blood in the tubs, which raised concerns about public health.
The unfortunate but mysterious death was not the only reason the springs’ were destroyed, some say. The Miracle Hot Springs uranium mine, known as the “Miracle Mine,” a mile west of the springs, is the source of a debate about possible radioactive contamination in the water. While a 1960 publication by the Atomic Energy Commission claimed that the majority of local springs were not radioactive, there has always been doubt.
A Husband And Wife Die Together (Miracle Hot Springs, Idaho)
In April 2023, a couple in their 80s were found dead at a hot springs in Idaho. 85-year-old Robert Berentz and 80-year-old Karen Woolley-Berentz of Filer had rented a private room at Miracle. Employees went to check on them during their stay, and found them face down, floating in the water. The cause was listed as drowning.
Killed By Brain-Eating Bacteria (Keough Hot Ditch, CA)
In October 2018, a previously healthy young boy was admitted to an intensive care unit at a southern California hospital with a headache, vomiting, fever, and an altered mental state. He died after three days in the hospital, killed by Naegleria fowleri, an amoeba that thrives in warm freshwater and can travel up the nose and into the brain, causing the disease Primary Amebic Meningoencephalitis (PAM). Family members said that 12 days before the symptoms started, the boy had visited the Hot Ditch spring area in Inyo County, California, where he swam in a natural freshwater pool, a stream of warm untreated (unchlorinated) freshwater that had been used for soaking in by local residents and visitors for decades without any previous report of PAM.
Mystery Deaths (Fifth Water/Diamond Hot Springs, UT)
42-year-old Devin Andrew Twedt was found unresponsive at a hot springs in Utah County at 8 am on April 28, 2023. The Utah County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue crew made life-saving efforts on their arrival at the scene, which is around a 2.5-mile hike from the trailhead on Diamond Fork Road.
“The victim could not be revived,” they reported.
The death was not treated as suspicious, and an announcement noted it was not connected with a cougar attack that happened nearby the day before.
Twedt was not the first mystery death in this location, as, in June 2020, Matthew Ross Minton was found dead in the same hot springs in Spanish Fork Canyon. The detectives in this case also reported that there were no signs of foul play, telling family members that he had been alone, and had likely become dehydrated, passed out, and drowned.
A Deadly Fall And A “Medical Event” (Terwilliger Hot Springs, OR)
In February 2023, a 22-year-old man from Salem died after falling off a cliff at Cougar Reservoir, between the Aufderheide Highway and Cougar Reservoir, south of McKenzie Bridge, near the Terwilliger Hot Springs (also known as Cougar Hot Springs).
“First responders arrived and were able to see the man lying motionless on the ground at the bottom of a cliff, but due to the extreme terrain, the rescuers were not able to immediately reach him,” the Sheriff’s Office told statesman journal. “Lane County Sheriff Search and Rescue personnel used ropes to rappel down the cliff.”
They quickly established that he had died. Deputies said the man’s fall “was likely accidental.”
In January 2020, a 25-year-old woman died at Terwilliger Hot Springs, reportedly due to a “medical event” while soaking with a companion in a 3-feet deep pool, said the Lane County Sheriff’s Office. No foul play was suspected.
Died Alone In A Windowless Room (La Paloma Hot Springs And Spa, NM)
A lawsuit was brought against a popular hot springs spa in Truth or Consequences, claiming that in 2016, they had allowed a 57-year-old man to drown in a natural spring-fed hot tub on their property. Apparently, Mark Burrows was the fourth to die at the La Paloma Hot Springs and Spa within a five-year period.
The lawsuit sought to suggest that water above 104°F violates national and state safety regulations, although it recognized that one “cannot turn down the temperature on a natural hot spring.”
The private room Mark Burrows was soaking in does not have windows, and as such no spa employee was able to see if he was in distress. It was only when he failed to emerge from the room at the appointed time, and after the spa attendant gave a 10-minute courtesy period before checking on him, that he was found unresponsive in the water. Unable to pull him out fully, she had to wait for emergency responders. The lawsuit says the spa was “negligent in its preparedness for such an emergency.”
Customers who soak in a tub there must sign a release of any right to sue the spa, even in the event of death or negligence from the spa.
“He was in perfect condition, excellent health,” Burrows’ niece told journalists. “Which is why this is so unfortunate.”
Lost Consciousness And Drowned (Meadow Hot Springs, UT)
29-year-old Christopher Lunt from South Salt Lake died in January 2023 after drowning at Meadow Hot Springs in central Utah. He was found at the springs, located just west of the I-15 near the towns of Kanosh and Meadow, having been underwater for “a number of minutes.” Witnesses began life-saving efforts before he was taken to Fillmore Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
“This appears to be an accidental drowning as per the investigation of MCSO and the Utah Medical Examiner’s Office,” the sheriff’s office wrote. “Our condolences go out to the family and friends of Christopher in their time of loss.”
Even Indoor Pools Can Kill You (Fairmont Hot Springs, MO)
In January 2022, a 14-year-old boy drowned in an indoor pool at the Fairmont Hot Springs in Butte.
“Our staff provided emergency first response, in conjunction with two off-duty nurses and another bystander, until EMS personnel arrived,” said the manager of the hot springs. After resuscitation attempts were made, he was taken to a medical facility in Kalispell, where he later died.
Boiled Alive And Dissolved (Yellowstone, WY)
At least 22 people are known to have died from hot spring-related injuries in and around Yellowstone National Park since 1890, park officials say. Most are accidents, with guests falling into the springs (some stupidly, after choosing to leave the designated boardwalks, disregarding the signs stating not to do so), while others have happened due to careless swimming or even in an effort to save a pet in distress.
One of the most horrific recent deaths, in 2016, saw Colin Scott, 23, slipping and falling into one of the park’s hot springs near the Porkchop Geyser. He and his sister Sable had strayed off the boardwalk into a prohibited area in search of somewhere to have an illegal swim, an activity known as ‘hot potting’. Sable videoed the two of them purposefully stepping off the Norris Geyser Basin’s boardwalk to look for the perfect pool to soak in, when the fragile mineral crust surrounding the hot springs gave way and Colin slipped into the water. Unable to help him, and with no cell service, Sable ran to a nearby museum to get help, but by the time she got back to the hot springs with the park rangers, it was already too late. Colin had been boiled alive in the hot spring and his body had begun to dissolve from the acidic water.
The police document noted: “Due to the report of the individual, a lack of movement, suspected extreme temperatures, and indications of several thermal burns, the subject was determined to be deceased.”
Due to the extreme location, the rescuers were unable to recover Colin’s body, efforts further hampered by an incoming lightning storm.
Sadly, when they returned the next morning, Colin’s body was no longer visible, although they did find a wallet and his flip-flops.
The report confirmed that they believed that Colin had been entirely dissolved overnight.
The incident report was released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by KULR. The report reads: “[Sable’s] smartphone recorded the moment he slipped and fell into the pool and her efforts to rescue him.” Officials withheld the video clips from the release.
The Floating Foot (Yellowstone, WY)
In November 2022, through DNA evidence, authorities were able to identify a man whose dismembered foot, still inside a black shoe with the bone attached, had been found in August floating in the 140°F Abyss Pool, a Yellowstone National Park hot spring. The victim was Il Hun Ro, 70, of Los Angeles.
The Abyss Pool, in the southern area of the Yellowstone National Park, is one of the deepest hot springs there, at 53 feet deep. Rangers temporarily closed access to the West Thumb Geyser Basin after the foot was found.
Investigators discovered a photo album, two journals filled with poems and notes (which were translated), $447 in a wallet, and a laptop in Ro’s car, parked nearby. No suicide note was found and, as no witnesses to his demise have come forward, they have no idea how he died, although they said they don’t suspect foul play.
Slip And Burn (Yellowstone, WY)
Nine-year-old Andy Hecht from Williamsville, New York, was touring Yellowstone National Park with his parents in 1970. While in the Old Faithful area, he somehow tripped or slipped into the scalding waters of Crested Pool. He swam a couple of strokes, then sank in front of his horrified family.
Died For His Friend’s Dog (Yellowstone, WY)
In 1981, David Allen Kirwin, 24, from California, died from third-degree burns after diving head-first into 202°F water in an effort to rescue a friend’s dog. Kirwan and Ronald Ratliff were walking through the park with Ratliff’s dog Moosie at around 1 pm on July 20. Suddenly, the dog got loose and ran into the blistering hot Celestine Spring. It began yelping in pain, and despite other park visitors begging the men not to go into the water, Kirwan jumped in and swam over to Moosie. Sadly, or perhaps mercifully, the dog had already passed. Ratliff then pulled his friend from the water. In addition to burns all over his body, Kirwin was blind and in a lot of pain. Eyewitnesses on the scene reportedly heard Kirwan say, “That was stupid. How bad am I? That was a stupid thing I did.
Kirwan passed away the following day at a nearby hospital.
If you have the stomach for more Yellowstone Hot Springs deaths, check out this mini-documentary.
Lessons We’ve Learned While Writing About Hot Springs
- Plan before you go. Read official sites, FAQs, and reviews written by previous visitors regarding water temperature, water content, bacteria levels, wildlife, landslide or avalanche risks, and other hazards in the area.
- Pay attention to warning signs posted near or on the site – they are there to guide you.
- Don’t leave designated boardwalks or trails.
- Don’t get in a hot springs pool without checking the temperature with your elbow first.
- Stay hydrated (drink plenty of water!) and don’t sit too long in a hot spring pool – listen to your body! If your heart is beating fast or you feel drowsy or dizzy, get out and cool off fast.
- Keep pets on a leash, or leave them at home. If they run into a pool that is hot, try to get them out without risking your own life.
- Don’t visit very hot springs with your kids. If you do, keep them close!
- Don’t drink alcohol in or near a hot springs pool.
- Don’t take glass to a hot springs pool.
- Don’t do your doo within 200 feet of a water source.
- Pack out your trash – LEAVE NO TRACE!