April 13, 2007

Local Officials Form Gorge Safety Coalition

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With the onset of warm weather, a new gorge safety coalition is beginning a large-scale communications effort to ensure that those fleeing the indoors are not injured by falling rock, rapid waters or other hazards.
“Our mission is to help devise ways to get the message out about gorge safety. We have, over the years, seen a number of tragic incidents in our gorges,” said Dave Burbank of the Ithaca Fire Department.
The coalition of the Ithaca Fire Department, the New York State Parks System, Tompkins County and Cornell University will focus on gorge safety in the greater Ithaca area, from the remote trails in Taughannock State Park where a woman was killed in 2005 to the cliffs above Beebe Lake from which students jump into the rapid water below in the summer and spring.
According to Burbank, the coalition’s effort was prompted by the August 2006 drowning of University of California graduate student Navin Parthasarathy in the Fall Creek gorge. Parthasarathy was visiting Cornell for a seminar.
In the summer and spring, illegal swimming and diving in the Cornell gorges is rampant.
“In this case, many people were in the water; it was a nice summer day. Very, very quickly, he disappeared and someone called 911. We had our hands full getting people out of the water,” Burbank said.
According to Burbank, students with bathing suits and towels were asking the fire department personnel at the scene for directions to the part of the gorge where they could swim and sunbathe. Despite the large numbers of students, the water was so unsafe that not even the New York State Police Dive Team could look for Parthasarathy’s body until days later. His death was one of three gorge-related deaths in the month of August.
The coalition’s effort to increase gorge safety includes the introduction of warning signs around area gorges. According to Allen Bova, director of Risk Management and Insurance for Cornell, since the fall, the University has posted signs at all major entrances to the Fall Creek Gorge and is in the process of posting them in the Cascadilla Gorge.
Burbank is a member of the communications subcommittee of the coalition. They have discussed posting signs that provide a history of those who have lost their lives in the gorges so that “people realize this is really happening,” Burbank said.
Dan Dryden ’10 went gorge jumping “every couple of weeks” when school began this year.
“I know it’s not legal, but I do it anyways,” he said.
Dryden could not remember whether or not he had seen signs cautioning that swimming in the gorge was unsafe and illegal. “The signage would only be a liability thing for Cornell, covering their asses in case something happened,” he said. “I know that it’s natural terrain, I also know that because of the continuing tradition of gorge jumping it cannot be maiming people left and right.”
Bova said that his risk management and insurance office had no ulterior motives in the new campaign.
“It’s really just a concern for student safety,” he said. “I don’t know if it will deter people from swimming or not. If people do go swimming, I hope they do so with their eyes open.”
Earlier this academic year, the University printed a pamphlet entitled “The Gorges of Cornell — Path and Safety Information” that warned students of the dangers of falling rock, slippery paths and rapid waters. It was placed in the mailboxes of all on-campus students. The coalition is preparing a gorge safety video to show to new students during orientation week.
“It’s important with the student population to make it a repeat message as well as a message from different sources,” said Maria Lynch, Tompkins County public relations officer and a member of the communications subcommittee. “New people are coming into the area all of the time, so this message needs to be something that’s ongoing,” she said.
Officials explained that prevalent signage and communication are important because there is little enforcement of gorge safety rules.
“We don’t, as a general rule, give assignments to patrol the gorges,” said George Sutfin, a crime prevention officer with the Cornell University Police Department. “If they are in Collegetown on a walking beat, an officer might go down to Cascadilla, but it would be impossible to patrol it.”
But the culture of the spring and summer in Ithaca may make gorge safety hard to enforce. Liz Franzek ’08 stayed in Ithaca for the summer session last year and went to the gorges often.
“It’s a fun place to swim, but not necessarily a safe one,” she said. “It’s a Cornell thing; everyone does it.”
“It’s very difficult to measure the effects of prevention programs,” Burbank said. “We at the Ithaca Fire Department have known this for years. We won’t know that a Cornell student has made a conscious decision not to go in the water and it saved their life. But we are all very hopeful.”