Jeremy Best believes he was the last civilian to speak with Margaret Anderson before she left the parking lot at Paradise and was killed.
He also believes the Mount Rainier National Park ranger saved his life.
He heard the shots from less than a mile away.
He was with friends from church, Champions Center in Tacoma. This was the second year of their tradition – ”a guy trip,” he said Monday evening – New Year’s Day spent snowshoeing on the shoulders of the mountain.
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Last year was as nice as this, sunny and clear, a perfect day.
Anderson had shown the visitors where to park. They’d spoken briefly. Small talk. He remembers her smile.
“I didn’t even know who she was,” he said. “She was very nice.”
She turned to answer a call. A motorist had illegally passed a snow-tire checkpoint and was headed up. Anderson left, driving out of the parking lot and back down the road.
Best remembers, “It was a gorgeous day.”
He thought the shots had something to do with avalanche control – snow, a sunny day, a common-enough sound.
As Best and his friends were arranging their gear, they suddenly heard shouts from rangers at the Jackson Visitor Center.
“This is an emergency!”
“Inside now! Leave your stuff!”
Best turned around and looked up the mountain, for an avalanche.
They rushed inside the center.
“We didn’t know what was going on for a while, probably 30 minutes,” he said. “Then a ranger said a ranger had been shot.”
Along with more than 100 other people, Best and his friends waited.
They all waited for more than an hour in the company of a handful of rangers. About 1 p.m., he said, in came more than a dozen officers in full tactical gear, helmets and vests, weapons ready.
“They were concerned the perp might be inside,” Best said.
The people were told to put their hands beside their heads. A handful of officers began comparing their faces to a picture of the suspected shooter. Other officers began clearing the building, the closets and other rooms.
“Up until the armed police came into the building, it was calm,” Best said. “When they came in, tensions rose. Some kids and women were crying.”
“They kept us downstairs and in the main area of the building. There was one bathroom, a single toilet and a long line.”
The officers soon permitted the people to relax.
“They allowed us to put our arms down,” he said. “At that point they gave us a little more insight as to the ranger that was murdered.”
The day grew quiet.
“There was a heaviness in the room because there was a tragedy,” Best said.
As the hours drilled by, the kitchen began serving meals at no charge.
Lasagna, pot roast, sandwiches, beverages.
“They supplied free food to everyone,” Best said. “They fed the kids first – there were maybe 25 under 6 years old, and at least a hundred adults.”
The most serious shortage concerned diapers, unavailable until officers allowed visitors to return briefly to their cars, under escort.
“A mother found some Disney movies for the kids,” Best said.
“Toy Story 3” and “Ice Age 2.”
About 2 p.m., after the building had been cleared, people were allowed to go outside to use the bathroom behind a snow barricade.
Best asked if he could grab a smoke.
Yes, he could. An armed officer replied, “We’re trying to make this as humane as possible.”
As the afternoon grew dark, “People mingled, played cards. People made friends. One lady I recognized from across the room – last year I’d run into her. She recognized me. People talked about hikes they’d done. There was no panic. It was like a social event. My greatest amazement was the children. I probably heard kids cry maybe 15 minutes out of the whole time we were there.”
There was no cell phone service, and people were allowed to make brief calls when the line to the outside wasn’t being used for police business.
“There were 20 people in line,” Best said.
He was able to contact his wife about 10 p.m.
He and his friends were able to leave a few hours later.
“I was inside that building from 10:45 in the morning until 2:45 a.m.,” Best said.
Elderly visitors and families with children were among the first to be escorted in small caravans of cars down the mountain.
The people who had been at the visitor center gathered again at the fire station in Ashford, where they were debriefed by the FBI.
Best finally drove into his Tacoma driveway at 5 a.m. Monday.
At 32, the father of three didn’t really put it all together until later in the day.
A heavily armed man was on his way to the parking lot at the Jackson Visitor Center.
A ranger who made small talk, who smiled – Margaret Anderson – stopped the man with her life less than a mile away.
“I’m positive she saved my life,” Best said.
“I was talking to her just minutes before it happened. If that car came up the road, if he had an automatic weapon, I wouldn’t be here. If it wasn’t for what she did – we were 10 minutes away from walking over to put on our snowshoes. He would have been up there and doing ...”
Best paused, tears in his voice.
“I just thank her. She was completely selfless.”
Anderson leaves her husband, also a park ranger, and two young daughters.
“They had a wonderful mom.”
C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535