September 15, 2008

Officials Ponder Gorge Safety

Print More

Ryan Lavin ’09, president of the Student Assembly, was at the scene two years ago when a group of students helped pull the body of a drowned teenager out of one of the gorges. Now, Lavin, along with other student leaders, Cornell administrators and Ithaca city officials, participated in a meeting on Friday to discuss new tactics for enforcing gorge safety issues in light of recent deaths and injuries.
“I was with some friends, taking advantage of the gorges and enjoying the waterfalls and the sunshine when a visiting student fell in — they couldn’t swim and didn’t come back up. My friends and I were among a group who pulled the body out of the water. This shouldn’t happen; we should be able to enjoy the gorges without those tragic events,” Lavin said. He explained that the currents surrounding a sink-hole in the Fall Creek gorge under the Suspension Bridge can pull people under, leading to head injuries and drowning. In June, Douglas Lowe ’11, also died in that area of the gorge.
This year, the S.A. will work with the Ithaca Fire and Police departments, as well as the Cornell University Police Department and administration to better educate students on the dangers and consequences of swimming in the gorges. According to the City of Ithaca municipal code, swimming in the gorges is illegal, with a minimum fine of $100 or 25 hours of community service. Recently the CUPD has put up signs, fences and warnings near the gorges, which students have torn down, climbed over or simply walked past.
Deputy Chief of CUPD Kathy Zoner expressed a need for a more active stance on the issue. In the future, police will patrol the gorges and issue tickets to students who break the law.
“It would be similar to getting a traffic citation. The student would be issued an appearance ticket to come to court. Also, there’s the trespass issue through state penal laws, and if there’s any damage done, it’s not hard to get a damage charge for criminal mischief,” Zoner said. She also explained that it is highly unlikely for a student to be arrested or hand-cuffed for swimming in the gorges.
This new push for enforcement and education against swimming and gorge jumping confronts one of Cornell’s longest standing traditions. Even the official screensaver on Cornell-owned computers shows black and white photographs of past Cornellians splashing in the water around the North Campus stone bridge in 1940’s-style swimsuits.
“It’s not if someone dies again, it’s when someone dies again. Once people have died, tradition becomes irrelevant,” said Gary Stewart, vice president of government and community relations for Cornell. Stewart explained that the safety efforts will focus on educating new students during Orientation Week.
“One thing that everyone has to realize is that this is an activity that’s going to happen. Students are going to go swimming in the gorges no matter what — if it’s an inevitable activity, let’s be responsible and make it safe,” said Lavin, who admitted to going gorge jumping with his Orientation Leader freshman year.
Cleaning up debris that causes strong and dangerous currents, as well as filling the sink-hole in the Fall Creek gorge were some options discussed at the Friday meeting. Lavin also expressed that the S.A., will try to incorporate gorge safety training into orientation activities like the swim test or, as well as attempt to provide trail maps for students to enjoy hiking rather than swimming. Other suggestions included building an outdoor swimming pool like Ithaca College, or providing free buses to state parks that have lifeguards.
Julie Holcomb, an Ithaca City clerk, is leading a gorge safety task force with Fire Chief Brian Wilbur, and will meet with the S.A. next week to discuss enforcement. Holcomb said she also witnessed a gorge-related death when she worked at Watkins Glen State Park and had to go with the victim’s father to identify the body.
“I’m a lifelong resident of the city of Ithaca. I’m no stranger to gorge accidents, or to the draw and beauty of the gorges here. We can’t seem to engage the people that still hop into those gorges the next day or the same day that a death has happened there,” Holcomb said. She provided data on the number of calls that the fire department receives regarding gorge-related injuries or deaths. Holcomb indicated that nine people have died in the Cornell gorges since 1986, and that the fire department has responded to 10 rescue calls since 2001.
As the warm weather lingers and students continue to climb down to swim in the gorges, Lavin said that enforcement will take effect only after students have received fair notice of the policies. “We’re not advocating for any type of citation at this point, but certainly for police presence,” he said.