‘‘It’s been a long time and this is something many of us are trying to put behind us.’’
- American South Pole scientist Darryn Schneider
Somewhere near the South Pole lies a small explorers’ marker bearing a star-map of Scorpio and the warning: ‘‘Not Without Peril’’. It signifies what, on the surface, seems a tragic, almost romantic, story of a brilliant young mind lost to the secrets of Earth’s last frontier.
Living in constant darkness and -50C temperatures of a harsh Antarctic winter, Australian astrophysicist Rodney Marks died of a seemingly natural heart attack. For a man whose fierce passion was inspired by the heroic explorers who risked their lives unravelling the secrets of Antarctica a century earlier, it was a worthy end. The University of New South Wales graduate had died doing what he loved.
Or so it was thought.
When the cause of death was revealed as poisoning, however, a mystery began that would expose a culture of binge drinking, depression and jurisdictional disputes deep beneath the tip of a lonely iceberg.
After seven years of frustration and dead ends, investigator detective Grant Wormald finally ruled out suicide when the inquest resumed in New Zealand in December after a four-year hiatus.
But with a wall of silence coming from workers at the South Pole base since the death in May 2000, Wormald has had no choice but to consider that Marks could be Antarctica’s first murder victim, a claim that has angered the cold continent’s scientists, and possible suspects.
‘‘This [poisoning] could have been in the form of a prank, or done with a more sinister intention,’’ Wormald told the inquest. ‘‘Despite numerous requests, I am not entirely satisfied that all relevant information and reports have been disclosed.’’
This is what he does know. Marks, a healthy 32-year-old, was walking with a colleague from the Antarctic Submillimetre Telescope and Remote Observatory back to the main South Pole base when his breathing became difficult and he started vomiting blood.
After an examination by the base physician Robert Thompson, he was released to recover in his room where, for a while, he was able to talk to friends.
Then, suddenly, the outlook turned grim. Marks returned to the medical centre twice more complaining of ‘‘hurting all over ’’. The emergency trauma team was called in and colleagues were consulted by satellite.
But 36 hours after falling ill, he was dead.
From there the death is shrouded in secrecy, half truths and outright speculation. The first official cause from the pole doctor was a heart attack, with a disclaimer saying ‘‘there was nothing to suggest it was related to any toxic or infectious agent’’. More intriguing still were the three needle marks found on his arm — but no trace of drugs were ever found in his system.
His family living in Melbourne would have to wait almost six months until the body could be retrieved for a full examination. The result: Marks had consumed a fatal dose of methanol, a common alcohol-based solvent stocked on the base for cleaning, but also often used in distilling homemade spirits.
‘‘It was a shock and we still don’t know how he came to have it in his system. That’s what we have spent the past seven years trying to get to the bottom of,’’ mother Rae Hamilton says. ‘‘His life was happy, he was financially secure, he had a girlfriend, a good family life, was doing work he wanted and was getting good results, too. There are still so many questions.’’
Directed by Coroner Richard McElrea to deliver answers, Wormald has been stonewalled by the US agencies in charge of the base and the workers trying to forget the grisly death. The National Science Foundation, which runs the program with contractor Raytheon Polar Services, says there are complex jurisdictional and privacy issues involved in the incident.
American operations at the South Pole are within the Rose Dependency territory claimed by New Zealand. Only 13 of the 50 staff on the base returned questionnaires to police and while the NSF conducted its own investigation, no results have been released to New Zealand investigators.
Someone, it is thought, must be hiding something.
Speaking from the South Pole, US scientist Darryn Schneider says there may have been cultural differences on the base but nothing more serious than a case of ‘‘lost in translation’’.
‘‘Americans often don’t pick up on the Australian sense of humour. Where as I might blow it off, Rodney was more likely to explain he was joking,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s been a long time and this is something many of us are trying to put behind us.’’
One of the theories was that Marks, a binge drinker who used alcohol to mask Tourette’s syndrome, drank the methanol as a substitute for alcohol to combat depression. That was quickly rejected because he ‘wasn’t stupid’ and, having been in the middle of his third Antarctic campaign, had adjusted to the gloomy climate.
Thompson says the isolation and full-time darkness of an Antarctic winter could lead to a form of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder. For the 50 scientists and support staff on the base, it was known simply as getting ‘‘toasted’’.
‘‘Winter-overs’’ say they start off as a piece of white bread but, by the end, are blackened pieces of charcoal. And the most common cure for this bout of ‘‘toastiness’’ is sickening amounts of booze.
Marks’ girlfriend, Sonja Wolter, a maintenance worker at the base, wrote on her blog shortly before the death just how much drinking went on at the bottom of the world.
‘‘There is an unbelievable amount of alcohol down here. I can’t tell you how many cases of beer, booze and wine I caught and passed on to the next person,’’ she wrote. ‘‘There’s no drunk tank. I am not aware of any AA meetings taking place, though it would not be a bad idea for quite a few people here.’’
Wormald said it was unlikely Marks drank the methanol to get a recreational high from its alcohol content, as there were already ample supplies of regular liquor at the base.But did the regular liquor include ‘‘Toast Juice’’, a spirit distilled at the base specifically to combat being ‘‘toasted’’? And was methanol, rather than ethanol, used in its making?
A letter from Wormald to the NSF, dated December 1, 2006, suggests that when Marks died, all ethanol bottles and a still for producing alcohol of some sort had been repatriated to the US by the NSF.
Sydney physicist Gene Davidson, who will never forgot the life-long friendship he made with Marks at the base, says toast juice, made during previous winters, was a clear alcohol with a triple-figure proof that he drank without any ill effect — apart from getting drunk.
‘‘By the taste of it I’m sure it’s not far from being almost pure ethyl alcohol,’’ he says.
Davidson has been outraged at suggestions by New Zealand Police that the Antarctic scientists or support staff could be capable of murdering anyone, let alone someone as popular as Marks.
‘‘That concept is so far -fetched it’s bordering on ludicrous,’’ he says. ‘‘There is no indication Rodney would have ingested it himself knowingly and no indication anybody would have given it to him. So the only way he could have come by it I think is by accident.’’
From his achievements, though, Marks was not the type to misread a label. Raised in Geelong, he held a bachelor of science with first-class honours from the University of Melbourne and a doctorate in physics from UNSW. Before his death, he was observing radiation from gas clouds in the Milky Way and trying to fix a problem with one of the telescope’s receivers.
He was also a mainstay of the base’s only live entertainment, the throw-together band Fanny Pack and the Nancy Boys.
Whether a freak accident, criminal negligence or Antarctica’s first murder, the Coroner’s findings, expected within weeks, will be of little comfort to those who loved him.
‘‘While any mother would hate to think someone would deliberately harm their son, it would be good to know what really happened, and if it is murder we will have to deal with that when it comes,’’ his mother says. ‘‘All we know is he had this poison in his system and he’s the only one who can tell us how it got there. ’’
What Marks did know were the very real dangers of Antarctic astronomy. But neither murder nor mistake was what he imagined when writing his PhD thesis in 1994. ‘‘ One hundred years ago, the Antarctic was a mysterious, treacherous and unforgiving land — the last frontier, beyond the edge of the known world,’’ he wrote.
‘‘It was a struggle for explorers just to survive.”