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Autopsy confirms snake bite killed SC conservationist, coroner says

What to know if you meet a rattlesnake

Helpful tips to avoid a surprise encounter with a rattlesnake and what to do if you're bit, from Scott Smith, who teaches about reptiles and amphibians. Know when they're active and how they judge danger.
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Helpful tips to avoid a surprise encounter with a rattlesnake and what to do if you're bit, from Scott Smith, who teaches about reptiles and amphibians. Know when they're active and how they judge danger.

Preliminary autopsy results have confirmed that a snake bite caused the death of a West Columbia man at the Santee National Wildlife Refuge over the weekend, Clarendon County Coroner Hayes Samuels said Tuesday night.

Wayne Grooms, a well-regarded conservationist in the Midlands, died late Sunday afternoon after a snake bit him on the lower left leg, according to the coroner’s office. Grooms had been on a field trip from his Lexington County home to the Santee National Wildlife Refuge.

Samuels said Monday an undisclosed medical condition could have contributed to Grooms’ death. But preliminary autopsy results Tuesday showed that “a rattlesnake bite caused the death,’’ Samuels told The State newspaper.

The death of a person from a venomous snake bite is highly unusual. Only about a half-dozen people die each year across the country from venomous snake bites.

Steve Bennett, a biologist who formerly worked at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said that during his more than three decades with the agency, he remembers only three instances in which people were killed in South Carolina by venomous snakes in the wild.

“It is so incredibly rare for someone to be bitten by a rattlesnake, but it is even rarer for them to die,’’ Bennett said, noting that the swiftness of Grooms’ death also is unusual.

Grooms died within about 15 minutes of the snake strike, the coroner’s office said Monday. Bennett said venom from the types of rattlesnakes in South Carolina typically takes longer to kill someone.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the Santee refuge, could not confirm Tuesday that the snake was a rattler, spokesman Tom MacKenzie said. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating the death, but had few details Tuesday, MacKenzie said.

Grooms, 71, was known in the Columbia area as a naturalist and supporter of environmental protection. A member of the Lexington Soil and Water Conservation Commission, Grooms was perhaps best known as a volunteer caretaker at the DNR’s Peachtree Rock Heritage Preserve in Lexington County.

While western states are more widely known for rattlesnakes, the venomous reptiles also inhabit much of the Southeast.

South Carolina has three types of rattlesnakes: the pygmy rattler, the eastern diamondback and the timber rattler, or canebrake rattlesnake. Of those, the eastern diamondback and the timber rattler reach the size in which their venom would more likely kill someone, Bennett said.

Bennett said the timber rattler is the one most likely to be found in the Santee National Wildlife Refuge. Those snakes are generally found farther inland than eastern diamondbacks, which typically stay within 60 miles of the coast.

Other venomous snakes in South Carolina include the cottonmouth, a snake found around rivers, and the copperhead.

Bennett said he spoke with a DNR official Tuesday who said Grooms was apparently on an excursion with other naturalists when the incident occurred.

The rattler struck Grooms as he was making his way to Lake Marion in the Cuddo section of the wildlife preserve, according to the coroner’s office. Grooms collapsed within about 15 minutes, Samuels said this week. The time of death was 3:55 p.m, he said.

Bennett said the area of the wildlife refuge where the snake strike occurred is in a scenic, but remote area. The 13,000-acre refuge’s Cuddo section is about seven miles south of Summerton and four miles north of Santee below Interstate 95.

“You are very far away from anything,’’ Bennett said. “When you are on the Cuddo, you are out in the middle of nowhere.’’

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