I recently really got into the books of a fabulous non-fiction author named Keith McCloskey. Mr. McCloskey has written some excellent books on the Eilean Mor lighthouse keepers case, as well as the Dyatlov Pass mystery.
In keeping with my philosophy of sharing the good stuff with my readers and followers of my Instagram account, I decided to ask Mr. McCloskey for an interview and, luckily, he agreed. Below is our chat. Thank you, Keith, for your time!
PART 1: THE DYATLOV PASS MYSTERY
Who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself!
I was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1952 and spent a large part of my early years growing up in West Africa (Northern Nigeria) where my father worked close to the edge of the Sahara desert. I have always been interested in real life mysteries and came to writing about them. For me, every mystery is a chess puzzle that has a correct combination to solve it. The key is finding the combination.
In your words: what was the Dyatlov Pass incident?
The tragic and completely unexplained deaths of nine Ski Tourists in the northern Ural mountains in 1959. Ski Tourism was very popular in the Soviet Union and was similar to a combination of orienteering and hiking with elements of skiing and mountaineering thrown in. It was encouraged by the authorities as it also had military applications. Regarding the deaths, what was baffling was the fact that they left the safety of their tent to walk to almost certain death in sub-zero temperatures.
The second baffling aspect is the nature of the deaths with some members of the group dying from the terrible cold and others dying from serious injuries involving broken bones. It should be mentioned that the location only became the ‘Dyatlov Pass’ after the deaths.
How and where did you first hear about it?
I have researched Soviet military history for many years and first came across the story when researching about the Tu 95 bomber on a Soviet military forum which is now defunct. It mentioned about two Tu 95’s passing over the Dyatlov Pass on the night they died and Yury Kuntsevich of the Dyatlov Foundation told me he had heard from a crew member of one of the aircraft who confirmed they had flown over the Pass.
What drew you to the case?
The sheer complexity of it. There is no other mystery like it IMHO.
How was the case investigated by the Soviet authorities? Do you think they did a decent job?
An answer to this could take several pages. However, to keep it simple: I do not think it was a very good job at all but that is not the fault of the investigators. All the evidence points to external forces closing the case down for whatever reason. Yevgeny Okishev has stated that just after the issuance of the autopsies, he was preparing to go back up to the Pass with a large team for a full search and investigation of the area, but the arrival of Leonid Urakov from Moscow stopped this. Urakov instructed that the case be closed and to write up the conclusion of the investigation, which was carried out by Lev Ivanov.
How have you yourself researched it over the years? Have you visited the locations where it happened?
I have visited both the Pass and Ekaterinburg on different occasions and maintained a close relationship with Yury Kuntsevich (RIP). I contributed towards the costs of Yury Kuntsevich and lawyer Leonid Proshkin to visit Yevgeny Okishev in Moldova. I also started a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds in the West towards assisting Yury Kuntsevich and Leonid Proshkin with the costs and legal fees of making an application to have the case reopened. The case was reopened but I regret to say that the case was reopened only to have an unsatisfactory solution reached. I get the feeling that the case was reopened in order to shut it down once and for all.
Was there anything “mysterious” about the place, in your opinion?
I have been to the Dyatlov Pass and seen all the locations of where they died and the location of the tent. Mysterious would not be the correct word in my opinion, but wherever people have died in strange circumstances I had a somber feeling standing there, especially a place as remote as the Dyatlov Pass.
Why do you think the campers were found in such bizarre circumstances, scattered all over the area?
I have said, in many interviews, that the circumstances seem almost deliberately planned to make it harder to find answers as to what happened, i.e. to confuse the circumstances. Whilst the argument can be made that the bodies found in the shelter, the two by the fire and the three seemingly trying to get back to the tent, all have a kind of a logic to them, the big question is – what were they doing down there in the first place? To leave the area of the tent was to invite certain death, which is what happened, but of course there is the line of theory that the scene had been set-up by other “actors” and that their deaths had taken place beforehand.
Has foul play been ruled out in the case, in your opinion?
The authorities have ruled out foul play, but it cannot be ruled out owing to some of the injuries suffered by some members of the group. In particular, the worst injuries suffered by Dubinina and Zolotarev.
Have you read Donnie Eichar’s book Dead Mountain? What do you think about his theory? (= some kind of a natural formation caused the wind to blow in such a manner that it made a huge noise that freaked out the campers and made them escape the tent in terror)
I have read every book on Dyatlov that has come out, including Donnie Eichar’s. It is a good book but, whilst it is a plausible theory, it does not answer all the questions – like all the other theories in fact. I made my own enquiry with a leading scientist in this field and his view was that it was unlikely, because not everyone is affected by infrasound, so whilst some members of the group may have been affected – others would not. But, as I say, it is a good book, and the theory has plausibility.
Tell us about your book on the Dyatlov Pass incident! How long did it take to put it together? Any revelations readers can expect?
I have written two books on the Dyatlov Incident. My first book Mountain of the Dead took me 18 months and was the first book to be published in the West on the story and Donnie Eichar’s was the second. My first book outlined the story and examined the theories with weight being given to the unexplained lights in the sky backed up by Yury Yakimov’s experiences in the same region. I met Yury Yakimov on my second trip over there and found him to be a sober, very intelligent man. My second book Journey to Dyatlov Pass took a year to write and described my trip to the Dyatlov Pass in 2015 and also examine in greater depth the military theory and lights in the sky. I would not say there are “revelations” as such, but I feel I have gone into some of the theories in far greater depth than other books on the same theories.
Without spoiling your book: do you think you have been able to solve the case?
Nobody has been able to satisfactorily answer all the questions and solve the case. There are plenty of people who will say they have solved it and get quite angry if you dispute their findings, but I do not give myself such hubris.
Anything you would like to ask that I forgot to ask about?
Following on from my Chess analogy above, the Dyatlov Incident is such a difficult mystery to solve. Whilst there may be a combination to solve it, it has also been described as a giant jigsaw puzzle with many pieces missing. Even if one could assemble the jigsaw pieces available into part of the picture, the missing pieces have the answer and as time goes on there is less and less chance of those missing pieces becoming available. One thing I would personally like to see is the exhumation of the graves at the Mikhailovskoe Cemetery. Whilst it disturbs the dead, I feel they could rest in peace if their exhumations help to answer what happened to them and identify anyone responsible for their deaths.
PART 2: THE EILEAN MOR LIGHTHOUSE KEEPERS DISAPPEARANCE
In your own words: what was the Eilean Mor lighthouse keepers mystery?
The strange disappearance of three lighthouse keepers on the remote Flannan Isles in 1900. It left the lighthouse station unmanned for several days with no operational light.
Your book The Lighthouse gives great background on the work of lighthouse keepers, but in a nutshell: what was their life and job like? What kinds of people did the work draw, if there was such a “type”?
Their lives were hard and monotonous. They would work for weeks at a stretch, usually at a very remote location and if bad weather delayed the relief so they could go on leave, they could be stuck on the lighthouse for many extra days and sometimes weeks waiting for the weather to subside. The nature of the work could only appeal to someone who was prepared to live in a remote and lonely location, in the company of two other men in very close proximity and without any break for weeks at a time. Lighthouses can be presented as romantic or idyllic, but the lighthouse records show that underlying tensions could often break out into cases requiring disciplinary measures such as dismissal in cases of assault. If the families were able to live at the stations, this could make life more bearable, but many stations could not accommodate families.
Who were the three men? What kinds of backgrounds did they come from?
The Principal Lightkeeper was James Ducat who was in his 40s, married with children and had considerable experience as a lightkeeper. Thomas Marshall was coming up to his 30th birthday, unmarried and was a large, powerfully built man. The third man was Donald Macarthur, in his 40s and married with children. He was different in that he was an “Occasional”, which is someone who was called on when required by the Lighthouse Board. He lived on Lewis, where he had a croft, and was on call when needed to fill in for any absent lightkeepers (usually through illness). Macdonald was a short man of slight build but had served in the army and was very religious. Despite being religious, he drank and was known to have a bad temper.
What were the circumstances of their disappearance, besides the disappearance itself, of course? Was there anything exceptional/notable about the day of the vanishing, or just another day on the job?
On that morning, the weather started off unsettled with showers and wind. As the day wore on the weather got steadily worse until by the evening, the waves and wind and built up to almost gale force. At a lighthouse station, outside jobs are usually carried out in the morning with the afternoon being used for rest prior to lighting up time. What was unusual about this day was the fact that Marshall and Ducat were wearing their outside gear (missing from their rack) which suggests that after lunch, they went outside the lighthouse to attend to something, but it is not known precisely what. A box of ropes near the West Landing has been suggested, although the question remains as to why they did not attend to this in the morning? It can be argued that as the weather was getting worse, they wanted to make sure the box was safe, but winter in the Flannans is full of storms and bad weather, so why would a box be unsecured at any point in winter? The other notable point is that the investigation showed they had gone out after lunchtime which would make the time after 2pm when there was hardly any daylight left at that time of year. At most they would have had an hour or so before the light started fading. The investigation showed that Macarthur’s coat (his “outside coat” as he called it) was still on its hanger.
How was the disappearance investigated? Did the authorities do a good job, in your opinion?
Considering three men had disappeared and were most likely dead, the investigation was very badly done. Basically, only one man investigated the disappearance and that was Robert Muirhead, the NLB Superintendent. At the very least, others should have been involved, including the police. So, one man, who was their boss, investigated their deaths. By doing this, the NLB also were breaking the law and they appeared to have got away with it. In 1895 the Fatal Accidents Inquiry (Scotland) Act came into law. The disappearance of the three keepers took place five years after the Act became law and a Fatal Accident Inquiry should have been held, but was not. The line of argument is that the whole episode was deeply embarrassing for the NLB and they did not want any more attention than necessary. It is also argued that the Secretary, who was the figurehead of the NLB, a man called Coventry Dick-Peddie, used his influence in legal circles to avoid the need for a Fatal Accident inquiry. Dick-Peddie was just taking over the position at the NLB at the time of the disappearance.
Tell us about your own investigation and your book! What can people expect from it?
I was very fortunate in that a good friend of mine spent his whole career as a lighthouse keeper with the NLB and he have me a very good insight into the life of a lighthouse keeper in Scotland. I have carried out considerable research into the NLB records as well as the Stevenson family lighthouse records. I also went out to the Flannans with a film crew to film an episode for the Discovery Channel about the mystery. To actually go onto Eilean Mor gives one a very good idea of what it was like and to retrace the very steps the Lighthousemen had taken. The book gives the background to the life of a lightkeeper and the Northern Lighthouse Board as well as investigating some of the theories about the loss of the three Lightkeepers.
Do you think you have been able to pinpoint the correct theory as to what happened to them?
I give my theory in the book but there are other theories. I also feel that too many people focus on the “Giant Wave” theory. One line of thinking is that one fell in the sea after he was caught by a giant wave. The second keeper ran back to the lighthouse to get the third keeper (who was not wearing outdoor gear) and then they too were caught by a giant wave. Two giant waves in a short period of time is highly unlikely.
What did you think about the film about the incident, with Gerald Butler? (“The Vanishing”, 2018)
I thought it was an “OK” film but it did not resemble the Flannans disappearance too closely. The film has not received many good reviews that I have seen.
Anything you would like to add that I forgot to ask about?
I began the campaign to have a sculpture made to the memory of the three missing keepers. This sculpture can now be seen in Breasclete on the Isle of Lewis.
And, finally, my regular questions I ask all my interviewees:
Your top 3 films?
1. Crash (David Cronenberg) 1996
2. Das Boot (1981)
3. Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Your top 3 books?
1. The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
2. Emperor of the Air by Ethan Canin (Short Stories)
3. Memoirs of a Geisha by David Golden
Your top 3 albums?
1. Live Undead – Slayer (1984)
2. Nils Lofgren – Nils Lofgren (1975)
3. Waiting for the Sun – The Doors (1968)