Two Tents Down at Grant Campground, Yellowstone National Park.
The quiet serenity of Yellowstone National Park was jarred into panic in the mid-morning hours of Saturday, September 7th, as a small child, just 3 years old, shot herself in the head with a 9mm handgun. Dying instantly, the 10 minutes of CPR provided by a lifeguard on vacation from San Diego were wasted. Her lifeless body was still and doll-like on the picnic table as the Park Ranger and paramedic vehicles raced through the tents and RVs along Lake Yellowstone.
The camp residents mulled around in a numb panic. Gray-haired women rushed to the mother of the child, wrapping her in blankets and shielding her from the sight of her lifeless daughter’s body lying on the picnic table. For 10 minutes, all you could hear were panicked voices. A few residents locate the gun and started blocking off the area where the shooting had occurred, others rushed to secure the father and make sure he was in custody, as well as his wife.
The residents of campsite I-307 had arrived the day before from Idaho. A young, new family, with both parents, a precocious 3 year old girl and a newborn; staying at Yellowstone for the first time. They had brought a ton of wood with them, filling up a small trailer they towed behind their vehicle. From the looks of it, they were nervous about making sure the kids were warm and safe, as most parents should be. Camping with young children can be rough, and sometimes parents go a bit overboard in how much and what type of supplies are brought.
For the residents of “I Loop” in the Grant Campground, the night had been eerily silent. No wolves were howling like they were the night before, few elk were bugling and the geese along the lake failed to make a single honk. At about 9am MST, the silence was broken by one loud popping sound, then half a second of nothing that seemed like an eternity. The silence was a collective moment of shock in the campground. Our brains knew what the sound was and we sat, waiting to hear what was coming next.
Silence broken, screams fill the air.
“Oh My God”
“We need a doctor”
“My baby has been shot”
“Is she going to die?”
Residents were rushing toward the father, who ran with the dead daughter in his arms through the campground. A trail of blood followed him, and each time he yelled, he would twist and turn, spraying blood on cars and the pavement. He ran four campsites and lay her body on a picnic table, which just moments earlier had been used to eat breakfast.
The girl’s father walked in circles a few hundred feet from the table his daughter was dying. Through his fingers, which were covering his mouth in shock, he admitted to fellow campers that he had just bought the gun last week to protect his family from wild animals.
He was worried about bears, and decided to get a handgun in case a grizzly walked into a campground, filled with a few hundred people, ignored the trash cans, coolers and people in tents and decided to go after his family. He continued to tell the campers that he had left the gun in the cooler, but it wasn’t loaded. He failed to realize that when he first loaded the magazine in the gun, it had left a bullet in the chamber; the bullet that was now into the left side of his daughter’s forehead.
Sirens broke the silence and shock. Rangers and paramedics raced to the table and moved the limp body to the ambulance. The ambulance raced out of the campsite as fast as it had arrived, leaving the campground once again silent. The father was transported by golf cart to the ranger station while the mother remained in a nearby camper. Residents of the campsite staggered around in shock, speechless and shaking their heads at a senseless tragedy.
The I-Loop of the Grant Campground was closed for two days while the National Park Service conducted their investigation. This was the first shooting death in a National Park since 1978. I was there, two campsites away. 75 feet from where a young girl lost her life. What used to be my favorite place in the world now has blood on it’s hands. Campsite I-307 is where a child was supposed to have their first Yellowstone memories. Instead, she lost her life because of yet another gun death.
Less than a week after the shooting, the I-Loop of Grant Campground in Yellowstone National Park was reopened. Driving by in the late afternoon, the picnic table in site 304 was still there, now covered with a cooler as a young couple was preparing dinner. Campsite 307 now had new residents, presumable unaware that just a few days earlier, blood was covering the post that marked their site. Rain had fallen, residents returned home and the tragedy was forgotten about by everyone except for those of us who were there. The Rangers who responded will never forget that day, and neither will the residents of the I-Loop of Grant Campground.
Ella Marie Tucker, I did not know you. I can’t speak for you and I can’t explain why your parents did what they did. All I know, because of what happened, is that I now don’t feel as safe while camping. Your mom and dad didn’t need that gun. You should have been given what I was given in life; a childhood of memories in America’s beautiful National Parks. Your death saddens me and I hope it never happens to anyone else’s child.