LAS VEGAS – An 11-year-old boy died in the intense heat of Death Valley National Park after he and his mother became stranded in one of the world's most inhospitable areas and survived for several days on bottled water, Pop-Tarts and cheese sandwiches, authorities said Friday.
Alicia Sanchez, 28, was found severely dehydrated and remained hospitalized in Las Vegas a day after being found with her dog, her dead son and a Jeep Cherokee buried up to its axles in sand.
She told rescuers in California's San Bernardino County that her son Carlos died Wednesday, days after she fixed a flat tire and continued into Death Valley, relying on directions from a GPS device in the vehicle.
"It's in about as remote and isolated an area as you can find," Death Valley National Park Chief Ranger Brent Pennington told The Associated Press. "How she got to that point, I don't know."
Pennington said Sanchez was found by a ranger who followed tire tracks off a dirt road into the Owlshead Mountains near the China Lake Naval Air Station, just inside the southwest corner of the vast national park near the California-Nevada state line. The park covers an area nearly the size of Connecticut.
Summer temperatures commonly run above 120 degrees in Death Valley, with the average daytime August temperature about 113. The high temperature Tuesday and Wednesday was 111, with a low of 96 early Tuesday.
An autopsy on the boy is scheduled for next week, but foul play was not suspected in his death, San Bernardino County sheriff's spokeswoman Cindy Beavers said.
The family's pet dachshund survived the ordeal and was being cared for by San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies, said Sgt. Tim Lotspeich, a deputy who assisted in the rescue about 20 miles east of the remote town of Trona, Calif. Trona is about 140 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
Officials said Sanchez and her son set out last Saturday with a case of 24, 16-ounce bottles of water and food on what was to be an overnight camping trip.
There were conflicting reports about when they became stranded. The San Bernardino County coroner's office said it was Monday; Pennington and San Bernardino County sheriff's officials said it was last Saturday.
By all accounts, no one reported them missing until Wednesday.
"We got multiple calls about 5 p.m. on Wednesday from family members concerned that they hadn't heard from her," Pennington said. "They said they received a text message Aug. 1 that said she was out in the desert changing a flat tire."
Las Vegas Police Officer Bill Cassell, a department spokesman, would not release a missing persons report. He said investigators checked the woman's apartment in Las Vegas and began coordinating a search with San Bernardino County sheriff's officials.
Pennington said an air and ground search was launched at dawn Thursday, and the woman and her son's body were found about 11 a.m.
He said a park ranger followed tire tracks on a dirt road into the desert, and at one point passed an abandoned tire and rim and water bottle.
The ranger found Sanchez waving for help outside the vehicle, which Pennington said apparently hit an underground animal den and became badly stuck in the sand. The boy's body was inside the Jeep.
Sanchez was taken to Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center in Las Vegas, about 130 miles east of Trona. Hospital spokeswoman Ashlee Seymour said the woman was in fair condition but could not be interviewed.
Sanchez told authorities she couldn't get a cell phone signal, and even hiked to the top of a peak to try. Authorities said the pair had no maps and quickly consumed the food and water they brought.
Pennington said cellular service is spotty and global positioning satellite directions can be unreliable on unmaintained roads and open desert in and around Death Valley.
"A GPS does not replace a map, a compass, checking in at the visitor center and letting people know where you're going to be," Pennington said.
He said searchers mistakenly looked late Wednesday for Sanchez in campgrounds in the Panamint Mountains, based on family members' reports that she planned to camp in free sites and visit the Scotty's Castle attraction in the far northeast corner of the vast national park.
The chief ranger said family members in the Midwest described Alicia Sanchez as a nurse who recently moved to Las Vegas and was working at a Las Vegas hospital. He said she had been due to work Wednesday evening.