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Mt. Rainier outing turns to drama and trauma

New Year's day shooting forces visitors into lock-down and offers chance for reflection

On New Year's Day, my wife and I joined some friends for a day of snowshoeing on Mt. Rainier.

Starting about 10 a.m., we enjoyed the spectacular scenery and blue sky as we drove the eleven miles from the National Park Inn in Longmire, Washington to the Jackson Visitation Center.

Less than a mile from the parking lot at the Visitation Center, a young ranger emphatically motioned for us to drive on. Something about her actions seemed odd, as did the cluster of police officers at the chain inspection area. Then, about the time we parked our cars, the Park Ranger in the area began ordering everyone to run into the Visitation Center, yelling, 'Bullets are in-coming! Bullets are in-coming!'

We began a long day of being locked-down into areas of the Visitation Center away from windows. Only gradually did we learn what had happened:

As we drove the last eleven miles up the mountain that morning, about three cars behind us, a young man, Benjamin Barnes, had blown through a snow-chain check point. Margaret Anderson, a young Park Ranger farther up the mountain, was alerted. Shortly after Anderson waived us past, she used her SUV to block the road. Barnes shot her, exchanged gunfire with another pursuing Ranger, and disappeared into the snow-covered forest.

That's why 107 of us were locked in the Visitation Center. We tried to get comfortable and pass the time with the wonderful help of the employees and Park Rangers. At one point, we were in an auditorium watching a video about Mt. Rainier when we heard a lot of cheers and clapping. Hoping an announcement had been made that we were free to leave, we went to the main room only to discover that four or five children had just attained 'Junior Ranger' status by successfully completing a questionnaire.

The one really tense time was about 2 p.m. when a SWAT team arrived wearing full gear with assault rifles and handguns. They yelled at all of us (visitors, employees, and Rangers) to 'Get down and put your hands on your head!' We stayed like that about 30 or 40 minutes while they ushered everyone into one large room and cleared the rest of the building.

The SWAT team checked each male to make sure none of us was the 'bad guy.' Eventually everyone relaxed when no one matched the picture of Barnes and we realized that the SWAT team people were also not the 'bad guys.'

As the day wore on, we learned that there were five law enforcement agencies and 150 to 200 officers involved in the manhunt using tracking dogs, helicopters and airplanes with heat sensing equipment.

We were all in lock-down until about midnight when the first group of five vehicles was escorted by state patrol cars through the park to the small town of Ashford. We were in the third group of cars, arriving in Ashford at 2 a.m. on Jan. 2, where we were individually interviewed by the FBI. At 4 a.m., 18 hours after we had set out from the Longmire Inn, we were finally free to drive home. Later that day, Barnes was found face down in a stream less than two miles from the Visitation Center.

My reflection: Margaret Anderson may have saved our lives. If Barnes had arrived in the parking lot of the Visitation Center, we may have been targeted first. My understanding is that Barnes would not allow emergency personnel to help Anderson for 90 minutes, firing on anyone who approached the ranger's SUV.

In this incident I was only affected tangentially, so I probably have only a small insight into what some people experience. But I now have much more empathy for people in other parts of the world who live with much more violence than we experienced. And I know that for some of us, life can change in an instant.

I have been thinking about the ramifications of gun laws, vulnerability of Park Rangers, and the effects of war. By some accounts, Barnes was a troubled youth who later served in the Iraq war before being discharged from the Army for misconduct. Margaret Anderson was the mother of two young children and wife of another Mt. Rainier ranger.

I am grateful to the park rangers for their level of professionalism and appreciate the courtesy shown to all of us by the park rangers, the staff of the Visitation Center and other law enforcement agencies.

Because of the events of this tragedy, both of the park ranger and her killer, I resolve to strive to live each day with intention. I will also continue to think about the children and husband of Margaret Anderson, a real hero.

- Dale and Linda Feik and Loren and Dottie Waltz of Forest Grove had planned a New Year's Day outing with their friends Del and Carolee Allen of Washougal, Wash.. Since the shooting, they have all shared their stories in different ways. Linda helped with the writing of guest columns, Loren talked about the tragedy at a recent meeting of the Forest Grove Noon Rotary club and Del and Carolee shared their experience with the The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Wash.