David Decareaux is shown with his sons Grant, left, and Dominic, right. (Courtesy photo)
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ST. LOUIS — Whether it was the bone-chilling rain or the pitch-black darkness while lost in a forest, circumstances that doomed an Air Force veteran and his two young sons on a Missouri hike illustrate the need for simple precautions that could avert similar tragedies, experts said Jan. 15.
Authorities said experienced hiker David Decareaux, 36, and two of his boys, ages 10 and 8, weren't equipped for the elements when they set out Jan. 12 on the Mark Twain National Forest's Ozark Trail in light clothing, only to succumb to temperatures that plunged to freezing and a downpour that worsened conditions.
Their bodies were found on the trail the next day. Their 4-month-old yellow Labrador dog, Bear, was found, alive, beside them.
During his nearly 11-year career in the Air Force, Decareaux worked in the communications career field as an information technology specialist. He left in July 2007 as a staff sergeant and then served the Department of Defense in civilian and contractor positions, the most recent with the U.S. Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany. He joined the Defense Information Systems Agency Continental United States as a civilian employee in July.
"Dave was a very important member of our team, and we are deeply saddened by the sudden and tragic loss of him and his sons. Our hearts go out to his wife and surviving children, and we will be by the Decareaux family's side as we mourn the loss," said Army Col. John McLaughlin, commander of the DISA CONUS at Scott Air Force Base.
Decareaux and his sons were buried — together — Jan. 18 in the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, near St. Louis.
Such deaths are rare, marking the first among hikers in the 1.5 million-acre forest in at least two decades.
The fact that someone got lost wasn't unusual, said Charlotte Wiggins, a Mark Twain Forest spokeswoman. Search crews are sent out a couple of times a year.
But despite his military training and years of hiking, including in the area where he ultimately died, Decareaux failed to account for changeable weather and the prospect of things going so awry, Reynolds County Sheriff Tom Volner said.
Pete Olsen, the American Hiking Society's vice president of programs, said it is important to tell someone where you're going and when you expect to return, giving an idea of where searchers should look if you're late.
"Nobody ever plans on getting lost," Olsen said.
In Decareaux's case, "everything worked against him."
With the temperature unseasonably near 60, Decareaux was wearing only a light jacket. One of his sons was clad in a fleece pullover, the other a sweater.
But the weather worsened. The temperature sank into the 40s, and a storm drenched the area with 2 inches of rain.
In the darkening, wet and cold conditions, the hikers missed their turnoff back to the lodge, Volner said. He said the turn is noted by "little-bitty 2-inch markers" — the kind of thing that could be overlooked in darkness or rain or simply due to stress.
A search was launched, but heavy rain caused flash flooding and washed out roads, so the search was called off for the night.
By morning, with temperatures below freezing, the bodies were found on the trail just a mile from the lodge, on the other side of a large, rocky hill.
Information from news reports in the St. Louis (Mo.) Post-Dispatch and Belleville (Ill.) News-Democrat contributed to this Associated Press story.