Transcript: 24. Mysterious Death of an Astrophysicist | Antarctica

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It was October 2000 in Christchurch, New Zealand. The local coroner was faced with an usual case: he had to examine the body of a 32-year-old Australian scientist who had passed away while working at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in the South Pole. 

Christchurch is the gateway to the Antarctic and many scientists and researchers use the New Zealand city as the last outpost before venturing to the white continent.

Rodney had died of natural causes at the Amundsen-Scott’s medical facility six months before. Because of bad weather conditions, the scientist’s body was placed in the snow where it was to be preserved until transport could be sent at the end of the polar winter. 

The Amundsen-Scott research station where Rodney was based, is one of the most isolated places on earth. It is run by the National Science Foundation of the United States (or NSF). However, the base is situated in the Ross Dependency territory, an area claimed by New Zealand. So, Rodney’s case made for a dirty  jurisdictional tug-of-war: an Australian citizen working at an American base in New Zealand territory. In the end, Australia and the US agreed that Rodney’s body could be transported to New Zealand.

The post-mortem examination was routine procedure, because of Rodney’s young age. His family and friends were still coming to terms with his sudden death and any answers about what happened to him would help them in getting closure. 

Six weeks after Rodney Marks’ body arrived in New Zealand, the autopsy results were finally released: the cause of death was methanol poisoning. He had the equivalent of a full wineglass of the substance in his system. Rodney did not die of natural causes after all.

It had been more than 50 years since the last murder in the Antarctic, but this case was far more complicated. The implication was that Rodney Marks was poisoned by one of the 49 other people doing a ‘winter-over’ at the Amundsen-Scott base. The implication sent a shockwave through the international science community. Who would want to kill this easy-going, likeable Australian astrophysicist?

>>Intro Music

Rodney David Marks was born in March 1968, in Geelong – a coastal city, southwest of Melbourne in Australia. He was bright and enthusiastic and from a young age it was obvious that Rodney had an aptitude for science. He received a scholarship at a prestigious private school in his hometown. 

But this promising young man did not let his life waste away behind the books. He loved surfing on the south coast of Geelong – to friends and family it seemed like he was always in the water. When he wasn’t, he loved watching Australian Football, or AFL, as much as any other person living in the state of Victoria. 

Rodney was a Goth who enjoyed playing music – he was in an alternative rock band and belted out cover hits whenever they had a chance to meet up or perform. He also started playing chess and poker. He was the one to beat at both games – he was an excellent player. And even if he’d had a couple of drinks, nobody could beat him. But he wouldn’t boast about it. In his laid-back way it was just part of who he was. Rodney’s solution to any problem was to go to the pub and have a couple of drinks. Rodney was known to be brilliant and witty and his dry sense of humour made him very likeable.

After high school, he finished his degree in science at the University of Melbourne. Then his studies took him north, to the harbour city of Sydney, where he completed his phD at the University of New South Wales. For his doctoral thesis, he chose a topic that interested him greatly: The Characterisation of the South Pole Site for Astrophysical Observations.

Rodney Marks soon became a well-known name in the international science community and made many friends and connections along the way. As a part of his academic journey, he spent time in Boulder, Colorado as well as Nice in the south of France. Because of his stint in France, he could speak French fluently. Just another skill he’d acquired casually, without making too much of a fuss about it.

But the lure of the South Pole always pulled Rodney. That would be his ultimate working environment. Rodney specialised in radio astronomy: capturing radio waves transmitted by objects in space. Radio astronomy allows scientists to observe objects in space that cannot be seen by using optical astronomy. Because radio waves cut through the dust in our galaxy, which allows scientists to detect other galaxies beyond our own, galaxies which are impossible to observe in any other way. Winters in the South Pole provide optimal conditions for the telescopes used in capturing radio waves. The colder, the better.

When the opportunity came for Rodney to go to the Antarctic in 1994, nothing would stop him from going. It was only a two-week stint for research purposes, but it wasn’t enough. Not by a long shot. In 1997, Rodney reported for duty for his first winter-over in Antarctica, an experience he enjoyed so much he signed up again just two years later. 

Antarctica is an enormous place, a vast white void in the perception of many people. Due to its extreme climate, nobody actually lives there. That is, apart from scientists and support staff from all over the world who are sent temporarily to conduct research.

In the 1950’s, in the Cold War race for scientific superiority, the United States built a permanent base at the South Pole. Operation Deep Freeze was launched. It was a collaboration between 40 countries to further earth science studies and to create a larger knowledge about the least explored area on the planet. Many missions followed and to this day there is a constant presence of scientists, scattered across the Antarctic, with bases run by various countries.

All lines of longitude converge, which means all the time zones converge. The sun rises once a year and it sets once. Six months of perpetual night follows and temperatures drop to as low as -110 degrees (or -80 degrees Celcius). As a matter of practicality, watches are set to New Zealand Time, which is UTC+12.

People who work in the South Pole are either scientists or part of the maintenance crew. A maintenance worker’s job is demanding and they have to be resourceful and use what’s available to do repairs and maintain scientific equipment.

Mid-winter’s day is an annual celebration and is marked by taking a photo of all the ‘winter-over polies’, as they celebrate the fact that there is only three months to go until they would see the sun again. After taking the photo – which is no small feat in sub zero temperatures, the party begins. Well, another party, because in reality, with limited sources of entertainment, drinking is somewhat of a sport at research bases throughout the South Pole.

When the first polar bases were built, the population who would winter-over were mainly male. But since women have been added to the list, sex has become another great pastime. It is rumoured that some guys take an ‘ice wife’ for the season and more often than not, there is bound to be a pregnant woman on the first flight out at the end of winter.

There is a strong sense of camaraderie between crew members. And there are jokes and traditions that are passed on from one winter to the next.  Like the ‘whiner bell’, for instance. This is a bell in the dining room which cooks ring when somebody complains about the food. When the bell rings, the dining room erupts in a banter of boo’s and hisses. 

People who stay behind for the winter, have to go through an array of physical and psychological tests. These tests are similar to tests taken by astronauts before they are allowed to travel to space. Pre-existing health conditions that could cause issues while living in isolation, like heart disease or diabetes would disqualify the applicant. 

Then there are psychological tests… The isolation and six months of no sunshine can cause something known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, which is a form of depression. By the end of the season, everyone is somewhat affected by the elements, but having a pre-disposition to depression would prevent applicants from receiving the ‘all clear’.

Rodney Marks made it through the evaluations – it counted in his favour that he had already spent a winter in the Antarctic. His only health concern was a mild case of Tourette’s syndrome. His ticks came out as mild twitching or a deep sniff from time to time, but that was all. It was not enough to cause a concern, in fact, most people who knew Rodney was unaware of the fact that he had been diagnosed with Tourette’s. Rodney found alcohol masked his condition and he was known to be a heavy drinker. 

Like so many explorers, adventurers and scientists before him, Rodney touched down at the US research base, McMurdo Station, the only place resembling a town in Antarctica. Some people have commented on the fact that McMurdo reminds them of a small town in arctic Alaska. It is an eight-hour flight from New Zealand and serves as the gateway to the rest of the continent.

The Amundsen-Scott research station is located a thousand miles inland from McMurdo, making it the most isolated place on earth. It was named after the first two explorers to reach the South Pole in 1911 and 1912 respectively.

Rodney’s room for the summer and winter was in a place called ‘The Dome’. Inside the 18,000 square foot (or 1670 square metre) geodesic structure were three, two-story buildings that were the living quarters for everybody on the base.

As winter was closing in, Rodney fell in love with maintenance specialist, Sonja Wolter. Her contract ran out at the end of summer, but they realised that their relationship was something that they had wanted to explore. Sonja applied for a winter position. Her application was approved a week before she was supposed to leave.

Rodney and Sonja were more or less the same age and she played the bass with Rodney in the Station’s band, Fannypack and the Big Nancy Boys. Rodney dyed his hair purple and Sonja died hers green. They were energetic and fun to be around. Their co-workers all felt that this was more than just a romance of convenience, by all accounts Rodney and Sonja were a perfect match.

The couple was part of the 250 people working at the base over the summer. By winter, the number was significantly less. Of the 50 people who stayed behind, only 10 were scientists, the rest were maintenance and management crew employed by Raytheon Polar Services.

As the sun set for the last time in March of 2000, the last plane for the summer left the Amundsen-Scott station. There was no way in or out of the base until October. 50 people, locked up for eight months in extreme surroundings… No wonder the chosen few have to undergo as many tests and interviews as they do. A ‘Polie’ is a special kind of person: it is somebody with enough social skills to fit into a working team, but anti-social enough NOT to miss the outside world. Loners with a high level of competence, but also a strong sense of empathy and tolerance towards others.

Psychologists have been involved in preparing and debriefing Polies since the 1950’s, after a construction worker had developed schizophrenia. He was sedated for most of the winter, hibernating his way through his condition, in a make-shift padded cell, until he could leave. 

Around this time, NASA was pouring a lot of resources into space travel. They used reports regarding the South Pole winter-crew to prepare for extended space expeditions.

Despite the extensive library of books and films at the research station, the favourite pastime in the winter of 2000 was drinking. Sonja Wolter wrote in her blog: 

"There is an unbelievable amount of alcohol down here… Pallets of booze were flown in… I can't tell you how many cases of beer, booze and wine I caught and passed on to the next person. Well, yes, I also shuttled sodas and fresh food, but there seemed to be mostly alcohol. I'm not aware of any AA meetings taking place, although it wouldn't be a bad idea for quite a few people here." 

Alcohol was available for free to all employees. Despite this the Dome had its own ‘moonshine still’ that ran from one season to the next. Rodney Marks had the habit of taking liquor into his room. Co-workers suspected a level of alcoholism, but it wasn’t out of control. He was a young, jovial person who took pride in the fact that he could drink his friends under the table.

The next day – he’d be back on the job. A job that he excelled at. In that winter, the Antarctic Submillimetre Telescope and Remote Observatory, or AST/RO, had some of the most successful seasons ever. Rodney ran the observatory, collected data and always looked for better ways of working. His morning commute was extreme: to get to the building where the telescope was, he had to walk half a mile (one kilometre) to an area called the Dark Sector. After the day was done, he geared up in his arctic suit and made his way back to The Dome.

This was his routine: work hard, commute hard, then partied hard. In the second month of winter, the telescope had some problems and Rodney was in the process of repairing it. He sent regular reports to his supervisors and colleagues at Harvard and always kept a positive tone in his correspondence. An email he sent in the summer read:

“Hi again from the sunny south, where today we have a pleasant and windless -38C, still too cold to hang around outside for long, but nevertheless it has a summery feel to it!”

Rodney loved his job and felt grateful to be in the South Pole where it was all happening. But unfortunately for Rodney, his days were numbered. On Thursday the 11th of May, as he was walking back to The Dome after work, he experienced trouble breathing. 

As he arrived at his room, he told Sonja that he wasn’t feeling well at all. Sonja suggested he ate something and the couple went to the galley around 6:30 for their dinner. Rodney ate very little and had a can of beer with his meal. After dinner, they would usually go to the bar, but not that night.

Rodney complained that his vision had gone blurry and he went to bed early, which was unusual for him. Sonja went to bed with him and settled in for a restless night. Rodney felt uncomfortable and woke up several times. At one point, he took antacid tablets as he had a burning sensation in his stomach. At 5:30am he woke up and vomited blood.

They both knew that whatever was wrong, it was serious. Sonja took Rodney to BioMed, the station’s medical facility. He was wearing sunglasses as his eyes were extremely sensitive.

The base doctor in the winter of 2000 was 40-year-old Dr Robert Thompson. Rodney had strange symptoms and the doctor didn’t quite know what to make of it. His first guess was that his patient was experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms, as he hadn’t had his usual amount of alcohol in the 38 hours leading up to his visit to the doctor. He suggested Rodney returned to his room and slept it off.

Rodney and Sonja went back to his quarters, but he couldn’t sleep. As time went by, his condition got worse, so Rodney decided to go back to BioMed, stumbling through the dingy tunnel between buildings. 

Dr Thompson examined him again, but still had no idea what could be wrong. BioMed was a basic medical facility, much like a one bed emergency room in rural areas of first world countries. The base doctor could take X-Rays and do simple lab tests. 

To try and figure out what was wrong with Rodney, the doctor decided to draw blood for testing. That is when he noticed two needle marks on Rodney’s right arm. He found this peculiar, as there were no recreational drugs permitted at Amundsen-Scott. Also, Rodney was right-handed, so the chances of him having injected himself were slim. But this wasn’t the time to confront Rodney, he was agitated and feverish.

After the blood was taken, Rodney returned to his room. Sonja said that she wanted him to rest, but that he wasn’t able to lie still and he was breathing heavily. At 3pm, they were desperate and went to BioMed one last time.

Rodney was in a bad state and Dr Thompson was running out of answers. The doctor contacted support via satellite, but nobody had any advice. There was an Ektachem machine at BioMed, that could give blood test results within minutes, but it was not calibrated and could not be used. To calibrate it would have taken nine hours, and by the looks of Rodney, they were running out of time.

The young and talented astrophysicist said that he was hurting all over. His breathing was heavy and rapid and he became combative. Dr Thompson had to calm him down and gave him a strong anti-psychotic, called Haldol. Rodney lay down and looked like he was falling asleep. He was clearly in pain as he made quiet moaning noises every time he took a breath. Sonja held his hand. Then, as she would later recall…

 "I thought he was getting better. His pupils were huge. They got smaller. He squeezed my hand. He tried to sit up. He then quit breathing and we tried CPR." 

Alarms sounded across the base and all staff trained in emergency respiration made their way to BioMed. They tried to revive Rodney for 45 minutes, but it was too late, their 33-year-old co-worker and friend was dead. He had suffered cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead just before 6pm.

Everyone on the base and their co-workers around the world were shocked. A memorial service was held at Amundsen-Scott station the day after Rodney’s death on Saturday evening, May 13. 

The question on everyone’s minds was: How could such a brilliant, vibrant person be taken in the prime of his life? Nobody suspected foul play, Rodney’s death was just a terrible tragic story. The assumption at this point was that he had died of natural causes. The official statement by Harvard University said:

“There is nothing to suggest that his death was related to his work, to the environment at the South Pole, or to any toxic or infectious agent.”

Back in Australia, Rodney’s family held a memorial service one week after his untimely death. The place they chose for the service was in Torquay, at a spot overlooking the town and the beaches. 

Before a post-mortem examination could be performed, they had to wait for the first planes to arrive at the end of October. That is six months later. In the meantime, all his loved ones could do was mourn a son, brother, friend, fiancé and co-worker and hope that they would have answers by the end of this nightmare.

Dave Pernic, an engineer working at The Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica (or CARA) at the time, remembered the days following Rodney’s death:

“They put him on a sled and stashed him in an arch, kind of out of sight, as to not spook anyone that might work in there doing rounds and such. Some of us were thinking about a week later, that this was wholly unsatisfactory, and was not treating our friend with the proper respect, after all, he came here to study the sky, at least he could be put to rest under the aurora and stars. Let's build him a casket, and bury him out at the pole for the rest of the winter.”

His friends made him a casket of oak, pieces of which were found around the base. It was decorated with a brass inlay of Scorpio – Rodney’s favourite constellation. Everyone helped and it took about a month to complete it. When the casket was ready, they retrieved his body and placed it inside. With the help of a traditional Nansen sled, the crew pulled it out to the geographic South Pole, where he could rest until it was time to go home. This occasion did not go by without ceremony. As Dave Pernic remembers:

“At the pole we placed him into the ice grave, with a great deal of cooperation and teamwork. Two people spoke. Simple and elegant, and definitely "cool". Rodney would think so.”

The crew kept their heads down and managed to make it through the winter. Sonja stayed on in the room that she shared with Rodney, till the end of the season. In the mid-winter’s greeting card, a prominent note stating ‘In Memory of Rodney Marks’ is written below the list of names. On all the base lists, Rodney’s name is included – his legacy almost defined the winter-over 2000.

It seemed to be one of the longest winters. The isolation of the base is amplified at a time of crisis. The year before, base doctor, Jerri Nielsen found a lump in her breast and treated herself for cancer, before she could be flown out. The rescue planes also brought her replacement, Dr Thompson.

In late October, preparations to take Rodney’s body to New Zealand began. He was taken from Amundsen-Scott station to McMurdo Station, from where he was transported to Christchurch in New Zealand.

When his body was taken to McMurdo, an Australian flag was all that remained at the South Pole to mark the tragedy. Darren Schneider, also an astrophysicist, made sure it stayed behind, permanently marking Rodney’s resting place. Since then, each time Darren returns to Amundsen-Scott he replaces the weather ravaged flag with a new one.

On October 30th, Sonja Wolter  and Darryn Schneider also boarded the plane which landed in Christchurch late in the evening. Back in civilisation and back to the reality of the void that was left by Rodney’s passing. They met up with Rodney’s mother, Rae, and his two sisters at Bailies, a local bar where Polies like to hang out. The get-together turned into somewhat of a wake as everyone toasted and remembered a remarkable man.

It would be six weeks before they learnt that Rodney’s death was no accident, he had been poisoned. At Amundsen-Scott Station, methanol was used to clean telescope lenses and other instruments. 

Not suspecting foul play, his co-workers tidied up his office and Sonja packed away his personal belongings in the room they shared. A lot of potential evidence was thrown out. 

New Zealand police officer, Detective Senior Sergeant, or DSS Grant Wormald was tasked with investigating the case. When he opened the investigation, all 49 people living at the Amundsen-Scott Station at the time of Rodney’s death had gone their separate ways, they were scattered all over the world. If Rodney was murdered, the perpetrator must have been one of the people living at the base that winter. 

DSS Wormald had to look at the bigger picture to understand criminal activity in the Antarctic. With excessive drinking, bar fights popped up sporadically. But being involved in an altercation could lead to termination of a contract, and the chances of ever working at the South Pole again, would be slim. 

Finn Ronne, a Norwegian leader of a private American winter expedition to Stonington Island in 1940 came close to being the first man to be killed in the Antarctic. The group’s doctor was brimming over with frustration at Finn’s strict approach to discipline and nearly pushed him off a cliff. Dr Don McLean was interviewed after the expedition and recalled an incident when the two of them were inspecting birds’ nests:

“I never came so close to killing anybody in my life.”

In 1984, this time another doctor based at an Argentinian station, received the news that he had to stay for the following winter, he burned the station down. Nobody was killed, but the whole crew had to be evacuated.

In 1996, a US cook, stationed at McMurdo attacked another cook with the claw-end of a hammer in a work-situation, he was detained in a hut until FBI agents arrived to investigate. The stress caused by living in isolation in extreme weather conditions does take its toll on people spending winter in the South Pole.

But deaths weren’t commonplace at all. Rodney’s death was only the fourth death on the continent in 35 years. The first incident occurred at Russia’s Vostok station when a scientist snapped after losing a game of chess and murdered his opponent with an axe. After this, playing chess was forbidden at Russian Antarctic stations, which is a big deal as chess was as important a distraction in those tedious conditions to Russian scientists as vodka would have been.

The subsequent deaths were all related to accidents, with one at McMurdo in January 2000, the same year Rodney was at the South Pole. A Canadian crew member died at McMurdo after a blood clot travelled to his lungs from a broken leg.

New Zealand DSS Grant Wormald had to keep an open mind in the death of Rodney Marks. For a brief moment, he had to consider the possibility of suicide. Winters were long and the pressure was high. But this theory was quickly cast aside. Rodney loved his job – he was exactly where he wanted to be. The fact that Sonja was there with him, made him less lonely and homesick. He was looking forward to their future together.

 Also, his supervisor, Harvard professor Antony Stark, who communicated with Rodney daily did not think if Rodney had wanted to end his life, he would have chosen methanol. As a scientist, he would haven known that it would be an excruciatingly painful death. And drinking a lethal dose of methanol by accident while working in a lab would be virtually impossible. The fact that Rodney repeatedly sought medical help on the day of his death further debunks the suicide theory.

The second theory was that methanol was used in the station’s moonlight still, which caused Rodney’s death. But this idea didn’t pan out either, as nobody else had any symptoms after drinking the homemade brew. 

Another possibility was that Rodney ingested methanol without knowing. Perhaps someone had deliberately put the poison into his food or drink. DSS Wormald remarked:

"This could have been in the form of a prank, or done with a more sinister intention."

Rodney’s friend, Darryn Schneider’s diary inscription for the week that Rodney passed away, said:  

“Rodney’s dry wit was sometimes misinterpreted here by the people not used to it. This is where his considerate nature and his kindness would come out. I saw him numerous times make amends in a very nice way for these misunderstandings. He would also say or do something kind for someone having a hard time in general.”

Did Rodney unintentionally cross a line with another ‘Polie’ at the station? Was is possible that in joking with someone he had offended them enough that they would want him dead?

New Zealand police reached out to the US National Science Foundation, who run the Amundsen-Scott Station. But the NSF did not want to co-operate. Were they trying keep the fact that the most prestigious students spent six months of a year, working hard and drinking even harder under wraps?

DSS Wormald asked for reports by the NSF into Rodney’s death and reports into the Ektachem medical computer. He was told there were no relevant reports. When Wormald persisted and asked if they had conducted any investigation at all, the NSF said one inquiry was carried out, but because it was of a medical nature would be quote "of little value to your inquiry" unquote. 

Paul Marks, Rodney’s father, was frustrated at the lack of co-operation. He told Science magazine:

"If it had been one of yours, a US citizen, I can't believe that the FBI wouldn't have been involved from the start and that no stonewalling would have occurred." 

Over the next four years, Wormald carried on with his own investigation as the NSF and Raytheon drip-fed him information, including the fact that the moonshine (distilled at Amundsen-Scott Station) tested negative for methanol. 

It took DSS Wormald six years of persuading and begging before the NSF would give him access to the 49 people that did a winter-over with Rodney Marks in 2000. Wormald was to give them a questionnaire for pre-approval, that they passed on to their employees. Of the 49 people, only 13 responded. Some of the more crucial witnesses never replied. DSS Wormald was convinced the lack of response is not due to a disregard for the investigation. He believed that the pressure from NSF of losing future employment was too great. 

The most telling evidence came to light, after two former NSF staff members came forward. The first was Dr William Silva, who was the base doctor at a nearby station. He shed some light as to the ‘medical inquiry’ conducted by the NSF. Dr Silva was one of the experts who had to review Dr Thompson’s notes regarding Rodney’s death. He felt that Dr Thompson’s actions on the day were questionable.

The second witness to help DSS Wormald was a health and safety officer for the Antarctic programme who worked for the NSF in Christchurch. He gave a sworn affidavit that there had been a number of inquiries conducted by the NSF into the circumstances of Rodney’s death. 

The witness said that lab containers were tested to see if the contents matched the labels. Tests were also done to see if any of the bottles of alcohol Rodney had access to had methanol in. 

There was a rumour of an unusual bottle of alcohol that Rodney had bought during a repose in New Zealand. Rodney’s friend, Darryn Schneider, remembered this bottle. It was found behind Rodney’s computer after his death. He remembered a black and white label with a picture of a shrimp in writing he could not understand, he guessed it to be Portuguese. Darryn believes this bottle was thrown out when they cleaned up Rodney’s desk after his death, not realising that it could be a vital piece of evidence. One Polie, who wanted to remain anonymous, said that as soon as he heard that Rodney had been poisoned, he thought of the strange bottle on his desk.

You only have to Google ‘alcohol-spiked-with-methanol’ to see countless articles of travellers who had drunk cheaper or fake varieties of alcohol, which caused severe illness, or in some cases even death. Just a small amount can leave you blind and cause permanent damage to your kidneys and other organs. 

It seems to be a popular trend in poorer countries with a high influx of tourists, like Bali, Mexico or coastal resorts in Eastern Europe. Bars use local moonshine to fill up bottles with well-known labels. Especially clear spirits like vodka, gin or tequila are easily replicated. And the customers are none the wiser. Perhaps Rodney’s dodgy bottle of booze contained a lethal amount of methanol that cost him his life?

Did Rodney take a swig from this bottle – in an effort to warm up – before making his way back to The Dome through the snow?

Symptoms of methanol poisoning include blurred vision, stomach pain and difficulty to breathe. Multiple witnesses saw Rodney fade away while experiencing all of these symptoms. If the Ektachem Machine was working that day, it would have revealed an abnormal gap in Rodney’s blood, only caused by a handful of agents, including methanol. If only Dr Thompson had realised, it would have been easy to reverse the effects of the poison by running a mixture of ethanol and saline through his body.

Dr Thompson received a lot of criticism about his actions on that dark day in May at Amundsen-Scott Station. Also the fact that he did not follow up on the needle marks on Rodney’s right arm. Why would he inject him without asking if Rodney had injected himself with anything?  

His stint in the Antarctic came to an end a year later when he had to be airlifted due to a back injury. He had slipped on the ice covered steps outside BioMed. Dr Thompson’s whereabouts have been unknown since 2006 and DSS Wormald has not been able to get a statement from him regarding the Australian astrophysicist’s death.

But no amount of ‘what-ifs’ or ‘should-have-done’s’ will ever bring Rodney Marks back. In September 2008, the written report resulting from the December 2006 inquest was released. The coroner could not find evidence to support theories of a prank gone awry nor foul play nor suicide. He concluded that Rodney ingested the methanol two days prior to his death on May 10th. The source of the methanol was never determined and the US companies did little to help solve the mystery.

Paul Marks publicly thanked the New Zealand police. He said that they faced…

"…an arduous task of dealing with people that quite obviously don't want to deal with them".

Sadly, Rodney’s family and friends had to come to terms with the fact that they will never have any more information regarding his death. His father also said:

“I don't think we are going to try to find out any more in regards to how Rodney died. I'd see that as a fruitless exercise.”

The memory of Rodney Marks has been imprinted into history with a broad, ice-covered mountain in the Worcester Range in the Antarctic bearing his name: Mount Marks. At the foot of the mountain, there is a plaque commemorating him.

In 2001, the annual marker for the ever-shifting geographic South Pole, was made by his friends Dave Pernic and Mike Boyce: a sculpted scorpion overlying the continent of Antarctica, with the words: “Not Without Peril”. 

And of course, there’s Darryn Schneider’s Australian flag. In Darryn’s view:

“The NSF hates it and continually fights to get rid of it. I guess they don’t want there to be a reminder of the incident. But I want that flag there, and Rodney’s family likes the fact that that point in the ice is marked. The fact that the flag moves farther away from the base each year, as the ice moves, is a very graphic reminder of the passage of time since this terrible event in our lives. At some point it might die, but the ephemeral nature of it makes it a powerful memorial.”

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