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Kathleen Coskran writes about death of PCV William H. Olson in Ethiopia in 1966
Kathleen Coskran writes about death of PCV William H. Olson in Ethiopia in 1966
A letter from Ethiopia
by Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 1965Ė67)
April 24, 1966
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
I was very surprised to learn that the PC called you about the accident. I had no idea they would do that óI donít think it was necessary because, as far as I know, none of our names have been released officially, and there was no danger of your knowing I was on the trip through the press.
In my last letter I didnít give you many details because I didnít want to unduly alarm you, but it seems the PC has already done that so Iíll tell you just how it happened. But, before I do, and I donít want to preach, I just want to say donít worry about me. Also, I, too, keep thinking about Billís parents. I know this must be unbearable for them, but he loved the Peace Corps and he was doing something he felt was good and worthwhile. His death was tragic but he didnít die without accomplishing something.
It bothered me that you said life wouldnít be worth living if something happened to me. Nothing is going to happen to me, but, of course, you canít always be sure, but I could also be run over by a car in Atlanta, Georgia. Here I am happy. I feel I am doing some good, and even if anything did happen to me at least Iíve done something for somebody before I die. Iím not being morbid, just realistic. So donít worry about me and I wonít worry about you. I would hate to think that I am making your nervous for two years.
As I told you before, B and I took the bus from Addis to Jimma on the Monday after Easter. On Wednesday we caught the plane from Jimma to Gambella. Ralph B, whom we know quite well, his roommate Jim B, Lyle C, a boy stationed in Debre Sina and Bill Olson were already on the plane. They had boarded in Jimma. The first three boys had come together, Bill was traveling alone. I had met Bill at Christmas, but I didnít know him well. We were the only PCVís on the plane, and we naturally became a group of six. B and I were glad to have somebody to go with.
At the airstrip in Gambella, we met 9 other PCVís who were leaving Gambella on our plane. They told us it was a great place, etc., etc. Also at the airstrip we met a Dutch Catholic priest, Father Jack. His mission is near Dembidolla, a six-hour walk away and he was staying in Gambella for a vacation. He told us that some of us could stay at the house he was staying in and the rest could stay at the hotel (which had only 6 beds, 4 of which were already occupied).
We walked into town, which was about a kilometer away. We met Jane W, a PCV from Gore, in town. It was terribly hot and she said she had just been in the river and it felt great. We left our stuff at Father Jackís and went to the hotel. We had a cold beer (the only available beverage) and B and I had brought food so the six of us had a picnic lunch. Then we decided to go swimming immediately. B and I had brought shorts, so we went to change. The boys went to the market to buy shorts, they changed, and we all went swimming in the Baro River.
The water was cool and nice. The river was pretty wide but so shallow that you could walk almost all the way across. We waded out to a huge rock about two thirds of the way across. We could stand up, the water was about chest high, but the current was very swift, and we had trouble keeping our balance. We splashed around, floated on our backs to another rock about 200 yards downstream.
The current was so swift that it required no effort and we could touch bottom whenever we felt like it. The bottom was very rocky, no mud, but the water was not clear and you could only see about six inches down. B and I got tired and we waded out and sat on the shore for a while.
We watched the boys swim and splash each other in the water. About twenty yards past the rock where we had been was a long sandbar and Jim swam over there and walked around on it. The sandbar was about another twenty yards from the far shore. After awhile, Ralph, Jim and Bill floated down to the other rock.
I was ready to go back in so I swam out to the first rock and sat and talked with Lyle for a while. Lyle and I decided to join the other three on the other rock but just then they all left the water and went to where B was sitting on the shore. Then Jim, and two minutes later, Bill, swam out to the rock Lyle and I were sitting on. The four of us talked about swimming across to the sandbar and then floating down to the second rock. We decided to do it and we planned to go one by one.
In order to get to the sandbar you had to get in the water, swim as hard as you could towards it and the current would bring you down to the end of it where you stood up and walked up on the bar. Bill went first.
He got in the water, we watched him swim for the sandbar, the current carried him to the end as we had expected, he stood up, and then he disappeared. We saw the tip of the nose of the crocodile, it looked like Bill said something, and then he was gone. There was no struggle; he never knew what hit him.
The three of us stood on the rock, stunned; it took us about ten seconds before we realized that something had happened to him, that it was a crocodile, and that there was nothing we could do.
We shouted to Ralph and Barbara who were wading near the shore to get a boat and we explained what had happened. There were a lot of local people around and after 10 or 12 agonizing minutes Ralph finally got two canoes sent out. About 5 minutes after it happened we saw an arm above the water. It stayed there for maybe 30 seconds and then disappeared. That was the last we saw of Bill.
The local people looked for the crocodile until it got dark (it happened about 3:45 in the afternoon). We went to telecommunications to call Addis but they were closed. We went to the police radio and they were able to get a message to Gore, but Gore couldnít transmit it to Addis until the next morning. Back at the river, the crocodile was sighted a couple of times and the natives shot at it, but I donít think they hit it. We stayed at the river until it was too dark to see, had some injera and wat, and went to bed.
The next morning we went back to telecommunications and set a wire to the PC office in Addis. We went down to the river and they killed the crocodile about 9:00. In order to get to the place where the crocodile finally ended up we had to wade through waist deep water for about twenty feet in two different places. Of course we were fully dressed, but boys had on jeans and they were pretty uncomfortable. The crocodile was big and ugly, about four meters the natives said, which is about 13 feet long. Barbara and I looked at it and left, she went back to the house and I went to telecommunications to wait for an answer to our cable. The rest is pretty gruesome.
The crocodile had eaten the body, the natives were afraid to cut it open, so Ralph took a knife from one of them, cut the body of the crocodile open and put the remains of the body in a box. There wasnít much left. B and I didnít know all of this until the five of us had to tell the story to the Peace Corps back in Addis.
About 12 oíclock the boys appeared at telecommunications. We had still had no answer to our first wire; we didnít know if anyone had received it, so Ralph sent another one to PC saying we had recovered the body and a third one to the American Embassy in case the PC wasnít getting our cables. The whole thing was pretty grim ó we didnít know if anybody was getting our wires and we just didnít know what to do. The natives made us tea, brought us water, gave us bananas and mangoes, and we still had some tuna left so we bought bread and had lunch. We sat around until three oíclock ó there was nothing else to do ó until someone told us there was a plane at the airstrip.
Planes only come into Gambella on Wednesday and Saturday so we figured it must be the Peace Corps Cessna. We hopped in a Landrover and went out to the strip. There was a plane there. It was an EAL [Ethiopian Airlines] plane from Dembidolla that the Peace Corps had rerouted to Gambella to pick us up. We raced back to town, got our things, and boarded the plane with the box containing the body.
The plane was a C-47, unpressurized and unbearably hot. Even my skirt was sopping wet from the heat. But it cooled off after we were in the air for a while. The trip back to Addis was long and rough. We got there about 6:00. There were several staff members waiting for us at the airport, and we were all rushed to the PC office where we had to go through the whole story from the time we landed in Gambella to the time we left Gambella. The whole thing was like a dream, we were all pretty dazed, I guess, and having to tell the story at the PC office was like relating a dream. Jane C offered B and I dinner, but we just wanted to go home. Someone brought us home. Jane came over later, and we talked for a while. Later on Mrs. Narin, the assistant directorís wife, called to make sure we were all right. We were. The PC had also sent a Cessna with two staff members to Gambella and on Sat. morning those two staff members came over and asked B and I lots of questions again. Saturday afternoon there was a very nice memorial service for Bill at the Lutheran church. All in all, it was a pretty terrible experience, but B and I came out of it all right. Ralph made us come over to his house Friday for lunch, B stayed there for supper, and Denny took me out to one of the more luxurious restaurants. Vernon was waiting at our house when I got back from Ralphís on Friday ó he had been there all afternoon ó he came as soon as he heard. He and three other boys picked us up Saturday for the service and took us out to dinner afterwards. Sunday, Denny had B, Ralph and I over for cards in the afternoon and dinner at night. So we were well taken care of, we didnít have to eat alone or be alone and it was all right.
I think I told you we wrote to Billís parents. We heard later that they requested that all of his clothes and books be given away to students. If you tell anybody about it, it isnít necessary to tell all the horrible details. A tragic thing happened, and a boy was killed. People tend to sensationalize something like that, and talk about the crocodile instead of Bill. The Ethiopian Heraldís headlines were ďPeace Corps Volunteer Eaten by CrocodileĒó true, but very poor taste and completely unnecessary. I thought Timeís thing was good.
Well, thereís not much else I can say. I hope the PC man didnít scare you too much. Donít tell Kay and Dad ó I donít think theyíll ever hear about it. It was a horrible thing, but it was just an accident like any accident anywhere else, and Africa is not to be blamed for it. This experience certainly has made me more cautious. There were local people there bathing and washing clothes in the river and we assumed that it was safe. We found out later that the crocodile had gotten a woman washing clothes two weeks earlier. Itís not wise to make assumptions anywhere about anything that you are not informed on. I am sadder but wiser and I will be careful. Donít worry.