“The water was cool and nice. The river was wide but so shallow that you could walk almost all the way across,” Kathy Coskran wrote her mother. In great details she described what happened that afternoon. She wrote her letter home on April 24, 1966, two weeks after the death of Bill Olson. “The current was so swift,” she explained, “that it required no effort and we could touch bottom whenever we felt like it.”

They waded out to a huge rock about two thirds of the way across. They splashed around, floated on their backs to another rock about 200 yards downstream. In a recent e-mail to me, Kathy details further the events of that afternoon, an afternoon she can never forget:

“There was a huge bolder in the middle of the river and we swam between the shore and that boulder for some time–probably an hour. The current was strong. Barbara didn’t feel comfortable in the swift water, and, after a while, she and Ralph went to shore and sat and talked. The four of us–me, Bill, Jim, Lyle, a PCV stationed in Debre Sina–continued to play in the water and, at one point, all four of us were standing on the boulder.

“Someone suggested swimming to another, smaller boulder some distance down the river, and Bill went first, diving off the back side of the boulder we were standing on, into a part of the river we hadn’t been in before, and he disappeared immediately–we never saw him again. 30 seconds or so later we saw his arm float up and then he was gone. 

“Almost immediately, Lyle said something like “a crocodile got him” which seemed incomprehensible to me. No one had said anything to us about a crocodile, and we never encountered another ferengie (foreigner) other than the white hunter the whole time we were there.

“We stood on the rock screaming to Barbara and Ralph, trying to let them know what had happened but the noise of the river was too loud and they couldn’t hear us and we couldn’t get anybody else’s attention. I do remember a boat some distance away, but we couldn’t get their attention–the river was too loud. So, we eventually got back in the water and swam to shore and told Barbara and Ralph was had happened.”

Ralph would take charge. Together, all of them went to the police station, which was a simple small building, and sent a message to the Peace Corps Office in Addis Ababa. Their telegram could only go as far as Gore, then it had to be re-transmitted to Addis Ababa. The PCVs had no way of knowing whether or not anybody would receive it. There were no phones in Gambella. The telecommunications office could only send messages first thing in the morning, and again after one o’clock in the afternoon.

And even today, nearly fifty years after the death of Bill Olson, Kathy Coskran still remembers how Ralph’s hand shook as he wrote the single sentence message that told the Peace Corps Office in Addis Ababa what had happened to one of the Volunteers in the muddy Baro River that runs through the village of Gambella, Ethiopia.

End of Part Four