A West Columbia naturalist who died after a snake bit him three weeks ago was looking for a place to swim at a national wildlife refuge when a rattler emerged from a brushy area and struck him above the left ankle, according to an incident report released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The report verifies much of the initial information about the death of Wayne Grooms the afternoon of June 12, but provides details about the circumstances surrounding the snakebite at Santee National Wildlife Refuge. It was released by the Fish and Wildlife Service in response to an open records request from The State newspaper.
Among other things, the report backs up statements by the Clarendon County Coroner’s office that Grooms died relatively rapidly. The coroner has said he died within about 15 minutes. The federal report says Grooms suffered from diabetes and heart disease, conditions that experts have said could make a snake bite more dangerous.
According to the report, Grooms died as he tried to return to his car. He was discovered face down along a rural road when emergency crews arrived about 3:46 p.m. that day, the report said. Grooms was pronounced dead at the scene. Two puncture wounds were found about an inch apart on his leg, the report said.
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Grooms and a friend, identified as Katherine Boyle, arrived at the wildlife refuge about 3:10 p.m., parked on a country road, got out of his Subaru, and walked a short distance to a rocky area of Lake Marion. The road where the car was parked was about 50 feet from the lake.
But after surveying the area, they decided the rocky spot was not good for swimming, according to the report, which said swimming is banned on the national wildlife refuge.
As the two walked down from the rocks and through the brush, the snake struck. Grooms told his friend he’d been bitten by what appeared to be a rattlesnake, the federal report said.
“What should we do?’’ Grooms asked after the snake attack. Boyle said they should return to the car, the report said. She then called 911 for help. Grooms’ body was found about 15 feet from the Subaru.
Attempts to reach Boyle, a staff member with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, were unsuccessful Tuesday. She and Grooms were members of the S.C. Association of Naturalists, an organization that focuses on the state’s outdoors and natural history. The group’s newsletter said he was bitten while the two were exploring the Cuddo section of the Santee refuge.
Grooms’ death, attributed by the coroner to the snakebite, stunned many people in South Carolina because fatal snakebites are so rare. No more than a half dozen people die nationally each year from snakebites. Friends of Grooms said they were surprised that such a tragedy could happen to him, since he was experienced in the outdoors.
Marcie Kapsch, who manages the Santee National Wildlife Refuge, said that even experienced outdoors people are vulnerable to accidents.
“It’s a freak accident you can’t really game plan for,’’ she said. “The snake happened to be right there where he was walking in that area. If he’d have been one foot to the left or to the right, we could have potentially avoided all that. We just have to be mindful that as we’re walking out there in nature, there are other things that live there, too.’’
She said swimming is banned from refuge property at Lake Marion, in part because of potential encounters with wildlife, including snakes and alligators.
Grooms, 71, was a Lexington County Soil and Water Conservation district commissioner. He was remembered recently at a memorial service at Peachtree Rock, a state nature preserve where Grooms was widely known for his volunteer work. Scores of people who attended gave personal testimonials and raised paper cups filled with bourbon to honor Grooms.
Brent Weaver, a conservation district commissioner who spoke at the June 18 service in Lexington County, said “it wasn’t surprising to me that he was out in nature in places that put him in that sort of danger. But for it to happen — particularly so quickly and totally unexpected — it was shocking. It was a big loss for us.’’