Two die at Arizona retreat sweat lodge

October 9, 2009 12:18:58 PM PDT
Two people died and an estimated 19 others were taken to hospitals after being overcome while sitting in a sauna-like sweat lodge at a Sedona retreat, authorities said Friday. About 50 people were in a crudely constructed "sweatbox" next to an open sitting area at the 70-acre Angel Valley resort Thursday evening, Yavapai County sheriff's spokesman Dwight D'Evelyn said. The facility nestled in the forest about 20 minutes from Sedona provides spiritual retreats.

Many people began feeling ill after about two hours in the sweat box, emerging lightheaded and weak, said Verde Valley Fire District Chief Jerry Doerksen.

About 21 people were taken by ambulance or helicopter to area hospitals, where two were pronounced dead, D'Evelyn said. The dead were identified only as a man and woman, both middle-aged.

Three people taken to Flagstaff Medical Center were listed in critical condition Friday, and another was in fair condition. Three others who were admitted to a hospital in nearby Verde Valley recovered quickly; two of them were released overnight and one was reported in good condition Friday.

Sheriff's homicide investigators were working to determine what happened and whether any criminal actions might have been a factor in the incident, D'Evelyn said. They were at the resort Friday interviewing the retreat director, staff and guests.

D'Evelyn said authorities were checking into whether any of the attendees had preexisting medical conditions and the possibility that some of the people might have been fasting.

"There are a lot of issues that may have led up to these injuries and deaths," he said.

"It's not something you'd normally see at one of the resorts there," he added, "and it's unfortunate regardless of the cause."

Doerksen, whose fire district responded to emergency calls, said he sent a hazardous materials team into the sweat lodge to test for carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and other contaminants.

"The test they ran didn't show anything out of the ordinary," he said.

Sedona is a resort town about 115 miles north of Phoenix famous for its red rocks. It is well-known as a center for the modern spiritual movement.

A woman who answered the phone at the resort Friday said its founders, Michael and Amayra Hamilton, would have no comment. The resort's Web site credits various vortexes, a creek and the surrounding vegetation as a way to transform, heal and nourish visitors.

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