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Elephant kills mother visiting Peace Corps daughter in Cameroon
Elephant kills mother visiting Peace Corps daughter in Cameroon
Elephant kills city woman in Africa
Point Breeze woman crushed during visit to daughter
Tuesday, December 09, 2003
By Mackenzie Carpenter, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Uber family photo
Heather Uber, of Point Breeze, in 1998.
All her life, Heather Uber loved adventure and the outdoors, so when her older daughter joined the Peace Corps and moved to the West African nation of Cameroon in September 2002, Uber eagerly made plans to travel there.
But that visit ended tragically Thursday morning when Uber, a 55-year old mother of four, was killed by a rampaging elephant while visiting a wildlife park with her husband and daughter.
Uber, of Point Breeze, suffered internal injuries when she was knocked down by the elephant, which suddenly charged at the group from a distance of about 40 feet, said Ned Uber.
"Everything happened so fast," said Uber, who, along with his daughter, Holly, 23, was able to dodge behind a tree. But his wife and another member of the party were knocked to the ground. "Heather ended up getting bumped by the elephant's tusk in the lower left abdomen. We all tried to run around a tree, but they're really fast compared to people."
It took nearly an hour to get Heather Uber out of the park, and then, another two hours by car over nearly 100 miles of bumpy roads to the nearest hospital in the city of Garoua. Uber, who had lost consciousness during the car ride, died only a few minutes after arriving at the hospital.
"At some point, she thought she wasn't going to make it, so she started telling us to make sure we told [our other children] she loved them," her husband said. "And she told us not to blame ourselves for making the trip. And she said a lot of other good things."
The park is one of several in Cameroon dedicated to protecting and preserving the elephant population, Uber said. Clashes between the animals and humans over a shrinking habitat have increased in recent years, resulting in numerous deaths each year there and in other parts of Africa. Safari operators routinely warn tourists that they run a greater risk of being hurt or killed by charging elephants than by lions or rhinoceroses.
Bill Langbauer, director of science and conservation at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, has spent parts of the last 20 years in Africa researching elephants. He said it's risky to be close to them under any circumstances.
"Even at 150 feet away, we'd get nervous," Langbauer said.
"They can go as fast as an Olympic sprinter once they get going. And if you're that close, and you get between a mother and a baby, it's very dangerous."
Unlike horses and other "prey" animals that spook easily, elephants don't usually get startled by sudden movements, he said.
"When they do act spontaneously like that, there are usually calves involved, or a male who is in 'must' -- when his testosterone [levels] are up -- and he goes into a rage."
Uber, who brought his wife's body back to Pittsburgh late Saturday, said he didn't know if the elephant was a female protecting her young or not.
But he said he and his wife were fully aware of myriad risks presented by visiting a poor country like Cameroon, where the back roads were so dangerous that "we got two flat tires in eight hours of driving before finally deciding to switch to a train instead -- and even they are known to derail frequently."
Uber said he and his wife did their best to take precautions throughout their trip, first when traveling to Ngan-Ha, a village of 1,500 people where their daughter was stationed, and later when visiting the park.
"We made the best decisions about what we knew and understood. The stuff we didn't know about, well, we did the best we could," Uber said.
News of Uber's death spread like wildfire over the weekend through the Swedenborgian church community, where she and her husband were lifetime members. She was also a member of the parish council at that denomination's 90-member Pittsburgh New Church in Point Breeze and taught at the church's school.
She was a beloved fixture in her neighborhood, "where you could set your clock each morning by when she walked their dog, Rex," recalled Polly McQueen.
"She was the quintessential mother and wife, 100 percent devoted to her family," said McQueen.
Mrs. Uber, a sports enthusiast, faithfully attended cross-country meets at Allderdice High School to watch her children compete, she added. Her daughter, Bronwyn, later became a member of the crew team at Brown University, and Edwin plays football at Carnegie Mellon University, where he is studying for an engineering degree.
"She was a quiet person, but once you got to know her, her feelings were right there," said McQueen. She recalled that after Uber took her younger son, Swain, to a Swedenborgian high school in Philadelphia, "she showed me a poem he had left for her on the seat of her car. There were big tears in her eyes."
Uber was also an avid supporter of her children's public schools -- first Reizenstein Middle School in Shadyside, where she was an early member of the Parents' Care group, which provided support for teachers and staff, and later at Allderdice, where she helped start a similar program and eventually became treasurer of the PTO. And she spent much of the past decade overseeing the Rock Ledge Garden Club's Seeds for Teachers program, which distributed free seeds for classroom projects for more than 200 teachers.
"It would have never survived without her efforts," said Helen Lee, a fellow gardener, who said Uber had also become an accomplished flower show judge in recent years.
When Holly Uber left for Africa for her stint in the Peace Corps, "Heather missed her," Ned Uber said. But her reason for journeying to Cameroon went beyond just a maternal yen to see a child.
"It was really about experiencing what your kids are experiencing, what it's like to live in a village with no electricity or running water. This was going to be an adventure, not a vacation.
"People talk about dying with your boots on, and that's what happened here," he said.
Besides her husband and four children, she is survived by her sister, Candace Ziegler, of Sioux Falls, S.D., and her three brothers, Ronald Nelson, of Bryn Athyn, Montgomery County, and Alvin and Perry Nelson, both of Glenview, Ill.
Memorial services will be held at 7 p.m. tomorrow in the Pittsburgh New Church in Point Breeze. Funeral Arrangements are by H. Samson Inc.
(Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1949.)