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The Day The Crocodile Ate Bill Olson

The Day The Crocodile Ate Bill Olson

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Published by Dale Andersen
In 1966, a US Peace Corps volunteer was attacked and eaten by a crocodile while swimming in the Baro River near Gambella, Ethiopia
In 1966, a US Peace Corps volunteer was attacked and eaten by a crocodile while swimming in the Baro River near Gambella, Ethiopia

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Published by: Dale Andersen on Aug 25, 2010
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06/03/2012

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In 1986, I was in Washington, DC, at a Peace Corps Remembrance Ceremony for volunteerswho died in service. Most of them died in airplane accidents or automobile mishaps. Hey, theroads in the developing world mostly suck, as do the drivers. And as for the airplanes, how wellthey're maintained is a crapshoot at best.Peace Corps volunteers are expected to utilize the ordinary means of transportation in the hostcountry. Which has resulted in over a hundred Peace Corps dead in crashes in some of PlanetEarth's dreariest shitholes. But not everyone died in a crash. There were exceptions. Bill Olson,for example. Here's the brochure from the memorial ceremony with his name circled in blue:
 
As you may have guessed by now, Peace Corps Volunteer Olson was eaten by a crocodile.Here's how it happened. It was during Spring Break. Most of the volunteers in Ethiopia wereteachers. Ethiopia is mostly Christian, so there's a one-week school vacation at Easter. A goodtime for the volunteers to hit the road and see the sights. One cool town to visit is Gambella. Sofar, so good. Here's a letter from an eye witness. Let's let her tell the rest of the story:April 24, 1966Dear Mother:
 
I was very surprised to learn that the PC called you about the accident. I had no idea theywould do that. In my last letter I didn’t give you many details because I didn’t want to unduly alarmyou, but it seems the PC has already done that so I’ll tell you just how it happened. But, before Ido, and I don’t want to preach, I just want to say don’t worry about me. Also, I keep thinking aboutBill’s parents. I know this must be unbearable for them, but he loved the Peace Corps and he wasdoing something he felt was good and worthwhile. His death was tragic but he didn’t die withoutaccomplishing something.
 
As I told you before, we took the bus from Addis to Jimma on the Monday after Easter. OnWednesday we caught the plane from Jimma to Gambella. There were six of us on the plane, allPeace Corps, and we naturally became a group. I was glad to have travelling companions.
 
At the airstrip in Gambella, we met 9 other Peace Corps, all on vacation. They told us it was agreat place. Also at the airstrip we met a Dutch Catholic priest, Father Jack. His mission is near Dembidolla, a six-hour walk and he was staying in Gambella for a vacation. He told us that someof us could stay at the house he was staying in and the rest could stay at the hotel.
 
We walked into town, which was about a kilometer from the airstrip. We met Jane, a PCVfrom Gore. It was terribly hot and she said she had just been in the river and it felt great. We leftour stuff at Father Jack’s and went to the hotel. We had a cold beer (the only available beverage)and we bought food so the six of us had a picnic lunch. Then we decided to go swimming. I hadbrought shorts, so I went to change. The guys 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 walkalmost all the way across. We waded out to a huge rock about two thirds of the way across. Wecould stand up, the water was about chest high. We splashed around, floated on our backs toanother rock about 200 yards downstream. The current was so swift that it required no effort andwe 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. I got tired and waded out and sat onthe shore for a while.
 
I watched the guys swim and splash in the water. About twenty yards past the rock was along sandbar and Jim swam over there and walked around on it. The sandbar was about twentyyards from the far shore. After awhile, Ralph, Jim and Bill floated down to the other rock. I wasready to go back in so I swam out to the first rock and sat and talked with Lyle for a while. ThenJim, and two minutes later, Bill, swam out to the rock Lyle and I were sitting on. The four of ustalked about swimming across to the sandbar and then floating down to the second rock. Wedecided 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 towardsit and the current would bring you down to the end of it where you stood up and walked up on thebar. 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 thenose of the crocodile, it looked like Bill said something, and then he was gone. There was nostruggle; he never knew what hit him. The three of us stood on the rock, stunned; it took us aboutten seconds before we realized that something had happened to him, that it was a crocodile, andthat there was nothing we could do.
 
We shouted to Ralph and Barbara who were wading near the shore to get a boat and weexplained what had happened. There were a lot of local people around and after 10 or 12agonizing minutes Ralph finally got two canoes sent out. About 5 minutes after it happened wesaw an arm above the water. It stayed there for maybe 30 seconds and then disappeared. Thatwas the last we saw of Bill.
 
The local people looked for the crocodile until it got dark (it happened about 3:45 in theafternoon). We went to telecommunications to call Peace Corps Addis but they were closed. Wewent to the police and they were able to get a message to Gore, but Gore couldn’t transmit it toAddis until the next morning. Back at the river, the crocodile was sighted a couple of times andthe natives shot at it, but I don’t think they hit it. We stayed at the river until it was too dark to see.
 
The next morning we went back to telecommunications and set a wire to Peace Corps HQ inAddis. Then we went down to the river and they killed the crocodile about 9:00. In order to get tothe place where the crocodile finally ended up we had to wade through waist deep water for about twenty feet in two different places. The crocodile was big and ugly, about four meters,which is about 13 feet long. I looked at it and left. The rest is pretty gruesome.
 
The crocodile had eaten the body, the natives were afraid to cut it open, so Ralph took a knifefrom one of them, cut the crocodile open and put Bill's remains in a box. There wasn’t much left.About 12 o’clock the guys went to the telecommunications office. We had still had no answer to our first wire; we didn’t know if anyone had received it, so Ralph sent another one to PC sayingwe had recovered the body and a third one to the American Embassy in case the PC wasn’tgetting our cables. The whole thing was pretty grim — we didn’t know if anybody was getting our wires and we just didn’t know what to do. Then someone said there was a plane at the airstrip.
 
Planes only come into Gambella on Wednesday and Saturday so we figured it must be thePeace Corps Cessna. We hopped in a Landrover and went out to the strip. There was a planethere. It was an Ethiopian Airlines plane from Dembidolla that the Peace Corps had rerouted topick us up. We got our things, and boarded the plane with the box containing Bill's remains.
 
Well, there’s not much else I can say. I hope the PC man didn’t scare you too much. It was ahorrible thing, but it was just an accident and Africa is not to be blamed for it. This experiencecertainly has made me more cautious. There were local people there bathing and washingclothes in the river and we assumed that it was safe. We found out later that the crocodile hadgotten a woman washing clothes two weeks earlier.Love,KathNote: In the letter she says “they killed the crocodile about 9:00.” The “they” were a professionalbig game guide named Karl Luthy and his client, an American Army officer named Colonel Dow.Here is an account of the kill and the “cutting open” from David Quammen's book, 'Monster of God:”

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Dale Andersen added this note
Thanks, Joe. I met a man, a Dutch Catholic priest, who said he saw Bill being pulled underwater by the crocodile. Terrible way to die...
Joe Hagen added this note
I could have done without that final picture but that was an awful experience for all involved. God bless him and all the Peace Corp volunteers.
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