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Sweat Lodge Hero? Victim May Have Saved Woman Before Dying, Says Participant Beverley Bunn

(CBS)
Emergency crews swarmed the Sedona, Ariz. sweat lodge after dozens fell ill on Oct. 8.

NEW YORK (CBS/AP) He may have been a hero, but he didn't live to know it.

PICTURES: Sweat Lodge Deaths

One man who died after an overheated Arizona sweat-lodge ceremony had already brought another sick woman out of the stifling tent, before re-entering the lodge himself, a participant in the ceremony told the New York Times.

Beverley Bunn, a 43-year-old orthodontist from Texas, said James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee, helped a sick woman to safety before going back inside. Shore died later that evening at a Sedona, Ariz. area hospital.

In all, three people died, and nearly 20 others have been treated for injuries suffered in the Oct. 8 ceremony during the "Spiritual Warrior" retreat led by New Age guru James Arthur Ray.

Kirby Brown, 38, also died that evening. Liz Newman, 49, died on Oct. 17 after falling into a coma.

Sheriff's investigators in Arizona's Yavapai County are treating the deaths as homicides but have yet to determine the cause. Ray has hired his own team to investigate, and vowed to continue with his work despite criticism.

"I have taken heat for that decision, but if I choose to lock myself in my home, I am sure I would be criticized for hiding and not practicing what I preach," he wrote.

During the ceremony-turned-tragedy, Ray told over 50 people who had just completed a 36-hour fast in the desert and were vomiting inside the cramped sweat-lodge that throwing up was "good for you, that you are purging what your body doesn't want, what it doesn't need," Bunn told The Times.
The New York Times

Ray pushed for participants to go without sleep, enter into altered states of mind through breathing exercises and meditation, compete in a game in which he played God and fast for 36 hours during a "vision quest," Bunn said.

PICTURES: Sweat Lodge Deaths

Following the vision quest the group ate a small breakfast. Ray then announced they were going into a sweat lodge for "an intense situation" that would "resemble rebirthing," Bunn told the paper.

Thomas J. McFeeley, Brown's cousin, and his relatives have spoken to about 10 people who were in the lodge while Brown was dying, according to the Times. From those discussions, McFeeley has concluded that Ray discouraged participants from vacating the tent.

The experience consisted of several rounds, during which fresh air was briefly allowed in as new, heated rocks were brought inside the tent.

(JamesRay.com)
Photo: James Arthur Ray.

"James Ray stood by the door of the tent and he controlled when those rounds began and ended," McFeeley told The New York Times. "He instructed people inside that you could not leave during the rounds. If you had to leave, you had to wait until the end of the round.

One woman, Sidney Spencer, 49, tried to leave the sweat lodge, but passed out before she could reach the exit, said her lawyer Ted Schmidt in the Times article.

Spencer was airlifted to Flagstaff Medical Center, and suffered liver and kidney damaged, as well as "scorched lungs," Schmidt told the paper.

Ray "was very intimidating. … His catchphrase was, 'Play full on, you have to go through this barrier," Schmidt told the Times.

"I can't get her to move. I can't get her to wake up," Bunn recalls hearing from two sides of the 415-square-foot sweat lodge. Ray's response: "Leave her alone, she'll be dealt with in the next round."

Ray has become a self-help superstar by packaging his charismatic personality and selling a spiritual path to wealth. He uses free seminars to recruit people to expensive seminars like the Sedona retreat that led to the sweat lodge tragedy.

After the rounds were completed, the spiritual experience turned into a triage situation with people laid out on tarps and water being thrown on them to bring down body temperatures. Some people weren't breathing and had bloodshot eyes.

One woman unknowingly walked toward the fire before someone grabbed her, Bunn said.

Shouts of "we need water, we need water," rang out. "They couldn't fill up the buckets fast enough," Bunn said.

Off to the side, a medical doctor participating in the retreat performed CPR on Shore and Brown with the aid of others. When Bunn asked if she could help because she knew CPR, she was told to stay back.

Ray was standing about 10 feet away, watching, Bunn said. "He didn't do anything, he didn't participate in helping. He did nothing. He just stood there."

PICTURES: Sweat Lodge Deaths
  • Sammy Saltzman

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