Bottom of the World: The Dome at the Amundsen-Scott base, where Aussie scientist Rodney Marks died in 2000.
Credit: Brien Barnett / National Science Foundation

New Zealand is Antarctica's nearest neighbor. It's so close, in fact, that when icebergs recently calved off the Ross Ice Shelf, Kiwis were flying out in helicopters and landing on them. Christchurch, on the South Island, is a small coastal city of about 400,000, but its population swells slightly every spring as people from all over the world pass through on their way to Antarctica, and then again in the fall as they return to catch commercial flights back to their home countries. Murder rates are low, and veteran detective Grant Wormald, 44, spends most of his time overseeing theft and fraud investigations. As a young man, Wormald was given an opportunity to work as a station manager in Antarctica but had to pass it up when career and family obligations got in the way. "It was something that appealed to me," he says. "I hear it's surreal – like going to church in a big way."

In June 2000, four months before flights in and out of Antarctica would resume, Wormald's office received a curious fax from the local coroner: an order to begin investigating the death of an Australian citizen stationed at an American base in Antarctica. Marks's case was fraught with jurisdictional ambiguity, but New Zealand law states that the coroner is entitled to hold an inquest on the basis of a body simply being present in the country, and Christchurch was certain to be the first place Marks's body would land. Jurisdiction would soon become the least confusing thing about Marks's death.

Anywhere else in the world, following the unexplained death of someone so young and healthy, Marks's office and sleeping quarters would have been cordoned off and preserved for investigation. And although Raytheon, the facility management company, is reported to have requested this, its authority was simply too remote to impress upon the grief-stricken crew, who felt sure Marks had died of natural causes. A few items were collected from his office and bedroom and put aside, but anything that didn't look suspect went straight into the garbage. After being cleaned up, both areas continued to be used just as they had been before his death: his office by other scientists, and his room by Sonja, who lived there for the rest of the winter.

At around midnight on October 30, the first plane off the ice landed in Christchurch carrying Marks's casket. Also aboard were Darryn Schneider and Sonja, who wearily made their way to a hotel where Marks's mother, Rae, and his two sisters were waiting to meet them. The five eventually moved across the street to Bailies, a Polie hangout where both Shackleton and Scott once drank and where more people who had worked with Marks showed up. The impromptu wake carried on well into the following morning.

Along with a few others from the base, Schneider stayed in Christchurch just long enough to talk to police, but without any autopsy results yet, it was largely fruitless testimony. Had they known what the autopsy would reveal, they probably would have stuck around, if not been required to.

Six weeks later, on December 19, the forensic pathologist made a shocking announcement: Rodney Marks had been poisoned. His blood contained lethal traces of methanol, a highly toxic wood-alcohol-based chemical Marks used to clean the high-tech telescopes, but in amounts far beyond what would be expected with normal contact – about a small wineglass's worth. It was, the pathologist believed, "virtually certain to have been ingested."

The news was all the more tragic because of testimony that base physician Robert Thompson had given a month earlier. He had revealed that while Marks lay dying, his potential lifeline was sitting dormant in a corner of the room – an Ektachem blood analyzer. Its single, tiny lithium-ion battery had died, and therefore, the machine lost its calibration every time it was turned off. Once turned back on, it took up to nine hours to recalibrate. Thompson had known about the malfunction, even reported it to Raytheon, but for some reason never attempted to fix it and decided against simply leaving it on. It was by no means a necessary piece of equipment in the physician's day-to-day duties, but it was there for a reason: emergencies just like this one.

A working Ektachem machine would have recognized an abnormal anion gap in Marks's blood, the causes for which make up a fairly short list, including methanol poisoning. Had his condition been caught in time, reversing the effects could have been a simple matter of running a mixture of ethanol and saline through his body. Even if it hadn't saved his life, it would have immediately raised the question of how methanol could have possibly gotten into his system.