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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A New Mexico family finally has a small bit of closure with confirmation that skeletal remains found at El Malpais National Monument were their loved ones, but mystery lingers over how they died on a day hike among the rugged lava beds where five other people have gone missing in recent years.
James Chatman, 46, and his daughter, Crystal Tuggle, 20, vanished eight years ago while on an annual trip to mark his birthday and Father's Day. The remains were found in a remote area of El Malpais — Spanish for the Badlands — along with tattered pieces of clothing and weathered credit cards. Officials say there's no sign of foul play.
Positive identification of the remains came Friday from the Office of the Medical Investigator. The family said that would help bring some closure, but they still have many questions.
"It just doesn't make sense to me. There's too many what-ifs — where they were found, the time frame. You can't even comprehend," Tuggle's older sister, Jennifer Tuggle, told The Associated Press in an interview Friday.
El Malpais is 160 square miles of jumbled lava flows, caves and tunnels mixed with sand, cactus and yucca plants. Since the father and daughter disappeared, monument spokeswoman Leslie DeLong said at least five more people have gone missing in the same general area.
"It's not what I would consider a typical hiking environment. It's a place where you're in very rugged terrain, where it's easy to become disoriented," she said.
Chatman and Tuggle had an annual ritual of taking on an outdoors activity every year, said Tuggle's grandmother, Marilyn Pitney of Santa Fe.
"It was Father's Day and birthday time, so they went on a hike together, which was pretty normal for them," Pitney said.
They had gone whitewater rafting in 2001 and had planned to go to Spirit Mountain in Arizona the next year, then wildfires put a kink in their plans. They hiked instead into El Malpais south of Grants on June 20, 2002. It was their first visit to that part of northwestern New Mexico.
A National Park Service archaeological team saw them late that afternoon just before they set off on a half-mile walk from a parking lot to an attraction called Big Tubes, 17 miles of tunnels and troughs created by the lava. DeLong said the team remembered they had a water bottle but no hiking boots or backpack.
Their disappearance set off a massive ground-and-air search involving 250 people and teams of sniffer dogs. They found nothing.
A natural resources survey crew finally came across the remains Tuesday. The bones were scattered in a rough part of the monument about five miles from where the pair went missing, DeLong said.
"We don't know exactly how they got to where they were. There's still a lot that is being investigated at this point," she said.
DeLong said the remains will be sent to a forensic lab in Texas in an effort to find out more about how the pair died.
A search crew set out Wednesday at dawn to retrieve the remains. They moved carefully, with thunderstorms bringing heavy rain and lightning to much of the state that day, and the jagged basalt beds that make up the monument are known for attracting lightning, though there are no indications that bad weather played a role in the disappearance.
Jennifer Tuggle said she couldn't believe it when pictures of the two were flashed on the evening news as authorities first announced they had found remains at El Malpais. A rollercoaster of emotions has followed for the family.
"My mom is in a lot of shock right now, grief, heartache," she said. "This is kind of like going through it all over again."
With little evidence left, the family may never know what happened to the pair.
"We just can't make sense out of it so that's our struggle as a family. We accept that it happened, but we can't make sense of it," Pitney said.
"I have to tell you, this is terrible. I could spin you some awful scenarios and so could her mother and sister," she continued. "We don't know, so here we are not knowing again."
Pitney will turn 82 on Saturday and she plans to spend the day honoring her granddaughter, who along with her Chatman loved the outdoors and was active in church.
"This young woman really believed her task was to make the world better. ... Twenty years is a blip on the surface of the earth, and she was so good," Pitney said.