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Sweat lodge victim's family says she was in shape

 PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) - A 38-year-old New York woman who died after sitting in a sauna-like sweat lodge at a scenic Arizona resort was an avid surfer and hiker who was "in top shape," took self-improvement seriously and had a passion for art, a family spokesman said.

Kirby Brown of Westtown, N.Y., was one of two people who died Thursday evening after being overcome in the crudely built hut during a spiritual cleansing ceremony. Authorities on Saturday identified the other victim as 40-year-old James Shore of Milwaukee.

Nineteen other people were taken to hospitals, suffering from burns, dehydration, respiratory arrest, kidney failure or elevated body temperature. Most were soon released, but one remained in critical condition Saturday. Brown had no pre-existing health conditions that would have kept her from participating in an otherwise safe activity, said cousin and family spokesman Tom McFeeley.

That two people died and 19 others became ill at the Angel Valley Retreat Center indicates that "something went horribly wrong."

"Our only thought is shock, sadness and surprise," McFeeley said. "There will be plenty of time to react to the truth of what happened here, but we believe it is pointless to be angry or to place blame or to make assumptions before we understand what occurred here."

A man who answered the door at Shore's address in Wisconsin said he had no immediate comment. Autopsies on Brown and Shore were conducted Friday, but the results weren't disclosed pending additional tests. Authorities haven't determined what caused the death s and illnesses but ruled out carbon monoxide poisoning.

Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh said Saturday his detectives were focusing on self-help expert and author James Arthur Ray and his staff as they try to determine if criminal negligence played a role. Waugh said Ray refused to speak with authorities and has since left the state. No charges have been filed.

"We will continue this investigation down every road that is possible to find out if there is culpability on anybody relative to the death s of these individuals," Waugh said.

He said it could be three to four weeks before they knew if criminal charges would be filed. Ray's recent postings on his Twitter account said he was "shocked and saddened" by the tragedy.

"My deep heartfelt condolences to family and friends of those who lost their lives," he wrote. "I am spending the weekend in prayer and meditation for all involved in this difficult time; and I ask you to join me in doing the same."

Ray's company, James Ray International, is based in Carlsbad, Calif. Ray's publicist, Howard Bragman, expressed condolences in a statement Friday but declined to speak about the deaths.

Bragman didn't return a call Saturday from The Associated Press. The Angel Valley Retreat Center is owned by Michael and Amayra Hamilton, who rented it to Ray for a five-day "Spiritual Warrior" retreat that promised to "absolutely change your life."

Amayra Hamilton said Saturday that Ray has held the event at the resort for seven years, and there never have been any problems. The resort remained closed to the public Saturday, Hamilton said. The sweat lodge has been dismantled, and a ceremony was conducted for those affected by Thursday's incident.

"The whole situation is very traumatizing for everybody," she said.

The people at the retreat, whose ages ranged from 30 to the 60s, paid between $9,000 and $10,000 to attend. Between 55 and 65 people were crowded into the 415-square-foot sweat lodge during a two-hour period that consisted of eight 15-minute rounds and various spiritual exercises led by Ray, Waugh said.

After each round, the flap to the crude structure was raised to allow more heated rocks to be brought inside. Authorities said participants were highly encouraged but not forced to remain in the sweat lodge for the entire two hours. The participants had fasted for 36 hours as part of a personal and spiritual quest in the wilderness, then ate a breakfast buffet Thursday morning.

After various seminars, they entered the sweat lodge lightly dressed at 3 p.m. Two hours later, a woman dialed 911 to say that two people, whom Waugh identified as Brown and Shore, did not have a pulse and weren't breathing.

A nurse hired by Ray was directing rescue efforts including CPR when emergency crews arrived, Waugh said. Shore and Brown were pronounced dead when they arrived at a hospital. Sheriff's Lt. David Rhodes said authorities are looking into whether there was a lag time between the first signs of medical distress and the emergency call. McFeeley said Brown had attended similar retreats, although he wasn't certain whether any were hosted by Ray.

He said Brown, who grew up in Brooklyn and Westtown and spent time in Mexico, saw the outing as a chance to continue on a positive path in life. Brown, a graduate of the State University of New York at Geneseo, had two sisters who recently got married, two new nephews and a focus on "making the world more beautiful for someone, not only with her art but with her heart," McFeeley said.

Although the family is saddened by her death , he said Brown created a roadmap by which others should live. "She was the least selfish, kindest person I knew," he said.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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