Three people were ticketed Wednesday in Yellowstone National Park after a group of tourists walked up to the edge of Old Faithful for a closer look and a once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity -- just minutes before the famous geyser erupted.
The outrageous incident was captured by a webcam that broadcasts live footage of Old Faithful and is unlike anything park officials have seen in recent times.
"We will see a few people off the boardwalk at Old Faithful every year," park spokesman Al Nash said. "I don't know that anybody recalls an incident in modern times with this number of people at one time getting that close.
"Thirty people were clustered about the cone of an active geyser. Certainly if it would have erupted while they were in that area, we would have found ourselves responding to an incident with many people seriously hurt."
As it was, the person operating the webcam alerted park authorities and a ranger called them back on to the boardwalk.
The people were part of a tour group that had arrived by bus, Nash said. The tour guide, the bus driver and the man who seemed to instigate the adventure were cited with $125 fines for leaving the trail in a thermal area. Nash did not know the name of the tour company and said at this point the company has not been barred from operating in the park in the future.
The video, which was posted onto YouTube by Old Faithful enthusiast Craig Skelly of Golden, Colo., shows a couple walking to the very edge of the geyser, looking into it and snapping photos. Presently, two more people join them. Eventually, a whole stream of visitors can be seen leaving the boardwalk for a closer look at Old Faithful.
Based on the video, it appears people were off the boardwalk for about 11 minutes before they begin to move away from the geyser.
Old Faithful has just opened to vehicle travel following winter, and the park is operating on a skeleton crew. But Nash said that even during the summer, the park does not have rangers keeping constant tabs on Old Faithful.
"We are not going to have someone watching the Old Faithful geyser cone around the clock. We don't have that many personnel," he said.
Nash said that the tour group told rangers they didn't see the signs telling visitors to stay on the boardwalk, a story Nash said was hard to buy.
"They claimed they never saw all those signs that were between the bus and boardwalk that told them of the dangers of walking off the boardwalk and regulations requiring them to stay on trail," he said. "It's hard to prepare for or enter the park or walk through the thermal area and not see the signs."
Nash declined to say where the visitors were from but said he did not think a language barrier played a role in the incident.
He urged people familiar with the park to remind other visitors about park rules and safety.
"We're trying to look at this incident as an opportunity to remind folks how to safely enjoy themselves in the park," he said.
Nash said no permanent damage was done to the area.
Daniel Person can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2665.