There are days when Randy King can smile, basking in the honeymoon glow as the new superintendent at Mount Rainier National Park.
Then there are the days when emotions cloud his eyes with tears and choke off the words.
The 57-year-old King took over the top park post Nov. 6 after eight years as deputy superintendent.
Careerwise, it was the crowning achievement of 34 years with the National Park Service that has taken him from Acadia National Park in Maine, to Yellowstone National Park, to a brief stint in Australia and to parks in Alaska.
The thrill, King said, came the day he was offered the position.
King and his wife, Sally, were attending a Sept. 18 ceremony marking the start of demolition of the Elwha River dams at Olympic National Park. On hand where the secretary of the Interior, the director of the National Park Service and Pacific West regional director Christine Lehnertz.
“Chris pulled me aside and offered me the job,” King said with a wide smile. “I asked, ‘Is it OK to hug my new boss?’
“It was overwhelming, and there was a sense of relief – relief because I had a deep personal connection here. You just recognize what a special place it is.”
The realities of King’s new job were driven home a little more than a month on the job.
On Dec. 10, 54-year-old Brian Grobis of New Rochelle, N.Y., got lost while snowshoeing above Paradise. Grobis was seen from a helicopter late that day in difficult terrain.
“We had to make the decision whether to send our people out at night to look for that person,” King said.
“I’m sitting here thinking, ‘I’m going to put my people at risk. This guy is showing no signs of moving.’ I said no,” King recalled. “It doesn’t take long to understand the breadth of the responsibility. These are sobering decisions.”
Then came January and a string of tragedies that tested King’s mettle and struck him to his core.
On Jan. 1, crowds were headed to Paradise on a sunny day to play at the just opened snowplay area, go skiing or take a snowshoe hike.
Just above Longmire, a car drove through a checkpoint where rangers were making sure drivers had snow chains. Margaret Anderson, a law enforcement ranger in charge of the snowplay area, heard the radio chatter and drove her park patrol SUV toward the vehicle.
At Barn Flats, she set up a roadblock as the car, driven by Benjamin Colton Barnes, approached. Before she got out of the vehicle, Barnes shot and killed the 34-year-old Anderson. A major manhunt ended the next day when Barnes’ body was found partially submerged in Paradise Creek.
Anderson, survived by her husband and fellow law enforcement ranger, Eric Anderson, and two young daughters, was the ninth National Park Service ranger to die in the line of duty.
Kevin Bacher, the park’s outreach and volunteer coordinator, was at park headquarters as they waited for word on Anderson’s condition. He remembered King anxiously pacing the halls.
When it had been confirmed Anderson was dead, King had to break the news to her husband.
“You could see the despair in his eyes,” Bacher said. “Then the gathering of his shoulders and the resolve in his eyes, that it was his job to go tell Eric. There was no question about his role. It was incredibly difficult, but he had to do it. Then he had to go out and talk to the reporters. He was so human.
“When I saw him do those things, in spite of this immense burden that had been put on his shoulders, I said. ‘Here is a good leader, we have a good man in charge.’”
The park was closed the next six days as the FBI led the criminal investigation, teams arrived to help park staff members deal with the loss and plan the memorial service, and others arrived to help restart park operations.
It was in the midst of that turmoil, said Lee Taylor, that King shone.
“His focus was on the well being of Eric and his family, and then more broadly the park staff that was directly involved in the incident and then the staff as a whole,” said Taylor, the former chief of interpretation who left the park last month to become superintendent at San Juan Islands National Historic Park.
King held a staff conference call Jan. 3, the first day most employees were back to work after the holiday and shooting.
“He spoke to the whole park team and talked about what happened,” Taylor said. “He did that in a way that conveyed the impact of the terrible tragedy but made it clear there were steps being made to help the park with its recovery.
“He conveyed both his sadness but also a sense of calm that we would be moving forward. That was a great moment for Randy in being the iconic leader for the park,” Taylor said.
With Anderson’s memorial service and the reopening of the park, there was hope that a semblance of normalcy would return to life at Mount Rainier. But the 14,411-foot peak showed its fickle nature.
On Jan. 14, Yong Chun Kim got lost on a snowshoe hike; searchers found his body two days later. That same day, two other snowshoers, Josephine Johnson and Jim Dickman, walked out after they had become lost.
Then, on Jan. 15, snow campers Mark Vucich and Michelle Trojanowski were reported overdue and the next day, two climbers, Sork “Eric” Yang and Seol Hee Jin, tried to summit that weekend but went missing.
For a week, blizzard conditions kept searchers bay. When they finally got on the mountain and in the air, there was no sign of the four, who now are presumed dead.
LINES OF HELP
There still are weeks when half of King’s time is spent dealing with the aftermath of Anderson’s death.
He attended the recent law enforcement officers’ memorial in Olympia, last week a board of review met at the park to go over the incident and he is working to help Eric Anderson in any way possible.
The emotions are equally prevalent.
“It’s changed what you need to do. We’re focused on helping the family and the people in the park get through this,” he said, his words caught in his throat as the tears welled up.
“(Anderson’s death) is revisited upon us, and it will be going into the future. What surprises you is how close it is to the surface. There are still times when I have to remember to breathe.”
In caring for himself, King said he has reached out to fellow park superintendents who have dealt with the death of a ranger. Park Service Director Jon Jarvis and regional director Lehnertz also check in regularly. Weekend hikes with his wife also help.
Lehnertz had nothing but praise for King and how he has responded.
“The way he has responded in helping people heal, he has been a friend to this employees and has reached out to the community,” she said. “He has a good sense of compassion and has shown steady leadership.”
The park’s staff have been a source of strength as well, King said. He mentioned talking with a maintenance worker who was the first to get to Anderson.
“He told me ‘I’m not going to let that person (Barnes) take away from the work I love doing, in a place I love to work,’” King said, swallowing deeply and tearing up.
“You see the flip side, the best of people. I think of all the people who stood along the road (for Anderson’s procession), that still gets me,” King said.
King admits the tumultuous winter has been a stern test.
“Those tragedies change your whole focus, for Mount Rainier and especially for me,” King said. “They changed what I had to do versus what I had hoped to do.”