Questions continue over snake bite death at national wildlife refuge

As Lake Marion sparkled not far away, Wayne Grooms parked on a country road, got out of his car and worked his way through a thicket of brush toward the big reservoir in eastern South Carolina.

Authorities say something enticed Grooms and a friend to stop, whether to look carefully at the scenic landscape or to take a dip in the lake on a sweltering June afternoon. But in the short distance between the car and Lake Marion, a venomous snake bit Grooms.

Fifteen minutes later, he was dead, the Clarendon County Coroner’s Office said.

Sunday’s death at the Santee National Wildlife Refuge stunned his friends and left many trying to determine how it all happened, particularly when the deadly snake bite involved an experienced naturalist like Grooms.

Only about a half-dozen people die nationally each year from venomous snake bites. And that makes lethal snake bites in South Carolina almost non-existent, experts say.

Steve Bennett, a former state Department of Natural Resources biologist, said he knew of only three South Carolina cases in which people died after venomous snakes bit them in the wild. He worked 31 years with the wildlife agency.

“It is so incredibly rare for someone to be bitten by a rattlesnake, but it is even rarer for them to die,’’ Bennett said. He also noted that canebrake rattlesnakes, the species suspected of killing Grooms, will move away from people unless they are stepped on or suddenly surprised.

“They are out there, but they space themselves out,’’ Bennett said. “You are not going to have 30 of them stretched there in one place. The chance of picking one place to walk through and stepping on one is just so unusual.’’

Colette DeGarady, a refuge manager with the Nature Conservancy, agreed, saying Grooms had an extensive knowledge of the outdoors through his work with her organization. He had been a volunteer for about three decades at the conservancy’s Peachtree Rock preserve in Lexington County, she said.

“This is just one of those fluke things – a terrible accident,’’ she said.

A preliminary autopsy indicated that the 71-year-old Grooms, a West Columbia resident, died from the snake bite instead of an existing medical condition, Clarendon County Coroner Hayes Samuels said.

“A rattlesnake bite caused the death,’’ Samuels told The State newspaper.

But concerns continued Wednesday about whether a medical condition could have been worsened after the snake struck Grooms. The speed in which he died – estimated by the coroner at 15 minutes – is particularly unusual, experts said.

Venomous snake bites from species common to South Carolina can take longer to kill a person, if they do at all, said Bennett and Scott Pfaff, curator of herpetology at Riverbanks Zoo. Pfaff said people with allergies to snake or insect bites can go into shock, causing a drop in blood pressure or a heart attack.

Most snake bites occur on people’s legs and feet, the result of surprising the unsuspecting reptiles in the wild. The best way to avoid such an encounter is stick to paths, rather than walking through brush. If that isn’t possible, it is advisable to wear boots or leggings made of dense material that a snake can’t bite through, Bennett and others said.

People bitten by rattlers or other poisonous snakes should go to a hospital, rather than trying to treat a snake bite in the field, experts said.

“The best first-aid kit for a snake bite is a set of car keys,’’ Pfaff said. “You should get to a hospital as soon as possible so a professional can treat it.’’

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would not rule out chances that Grooms was bitten by another type of venomous snake. Both canebrake rattlers and cottonmouth water moccasins are found along the shoreline of Lake Marion, said Marcie Kapsch, manager at the Santee National Wildlife Refuge in Clarendon County.

A federal incident report of the snake bite remained unavailable Wednesday, but Kapsch and Bennett said the area where Grooms was struck is generally open land with brush and some trees – ideal habitat for canebrake rattlers. Kapsch said reports indicate that Grooms heard some type of rattling before he was bitten, but neither he nor a companion saw the snake.

The snake was not captured, she said. The strike occurred within 300 to 400 feet of the road where the car Grooms had ridden in was parked, Kapsch said.. The Fish and Wildlife Service is continuing to investigate, agency spokesman Tom MacKenzie said.

Grooms was known in the Columbia area as a naturalist and supporter of environmental protection. A member of the Lexington Soil and Water Conservation Commission, Grooms was perhaps best known as a volunteer caretaker at the Peachtree preserve in Lexington County.

Friends flooded Facebook with posts this week expressing shock and sympathy at Grooms’ death. Grooms is survived by his wife, a son and four brothers. A memorial celebration for Grooms will be held Saturday morning at Peachtree Rock in Lexington County.

“Let us celebrate his life at one of his favorite settings,’’ Grooms’ obituary said.

Kapsch said her heart “bleeds for the family and all their friends,” but she also noted that a wildlife refuge contains natural hazards the public must be aware of.

The area of the wildlife refuge where the snake strike occurred is in a scenic, but remote, area. The 13,000-acre refuge’s Cuddo section is about seven miles south of Summerton and four miles north of Santee below Interstate 95.

“You are very far away from anything,’’ Bennett said. “When you are on the Cuddo, you are out in the middle of nowhere.’’

Robert McCullough, a spokesman for the DNR, said the agency has information that Grooms was on his way with a friend to swim in Lake Marion when the snake struck.

South Carolina has 38 types of snakes, of which 6 are venomous. Those include three types of rattlesnakes: the pygmy, the eastern diamondback and the timber, or canebrake, rattler.

Of those, the eastern diamondback and the canebrake rattler reach the size in which their venom would more likely kill someone, Bennett said. A big canebrake rattler, for instance, can approach six feet in length.

Other venomous snakes in South Carolina include the cottonmouth, a snake found around rivers; the copperhead; and the coral snake. The copperhead exacts a painful bite, but its venom is rarely fatal. The coral snake contains a neurotoxin that is extremely dangerous. That snake, however, is docile and less likely to bite someone.

Kapsch and Bennett said the canebrake rattler is the rattlesnake most likely to inhabit the Santee National Wildlife Refuge. Those snakes are generally found farther inland than eastern diamondbacks, which usually stay within 60 miles of the coast.

Pfaff characterized the canebrake, or timber, rattler as the most dangerous venomous snake in South Carolina. Those snakes are found commonly throughout the coastal plain to Congaree National Park southeast of Columbia. They are less abundant in the Piedmont, but become more common in the mountains.

Pfaff and Bennett said canebrake and eastern diamond back rattlers generally contain venoms that affect tissue, but some also contain 25 to 30 percent neurotoxins that can make those bites more dangerous. Rattlesnakes, however, do not always release venom when they bite, depending on the circumstances.