August 30, 2011

From the parents of a victim, a plea for education on gorge safety

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The parents of Nathaniel Rand ’12, who tragically drowned July 2 while swimming in Fall Creek gorge, discuss gorge safety.

To the Editor:

Re: “A Time to Act,” Opinion, August 23

We were concerned when we read the Aug. 23 opinion piece entitled “A Time to Act” on the recent drownings in the gorge. The article contained statements that promote serious misperceptions that need to be corrected so that the real causes of the drownings can be addressed.

We have direct experience about this issue. We are the parents of Nathaniel Rand ’12 who drowned in the gorge on July 2 — just two months ago. The author of the piece was correct when he wrote that   “… the deaths at Fall Creek are highly avoidable. Cornell needs to take action to prevent these unnecessary and totally preventable fatalities.” However, in a plea for Cornell to close off access to the gorge, the author writes about having “engaged in those risky activities that have caused all this suffering” and that “it does not seem fair that everyone has to suffer because of the risks taken by a few people.”

Regrettably, those statements create the wrong impression that these drownings resulted from students who were taking on high risk behaviors. While this may be true for the author, this was not true for many others, who were simply not aware of the dangers of swimming in those areas.

We state with certainty that Nate was not a risk taker. Anyone and everyone who knew Nate knew him to be exceedingly careful and risk averse — from the friends he lived with and always noted his cautiousness, to the graduate student he assisted with interviews who was surprised when he asked her not to back out of a driveway into traffic. Nate did not have “confidence and self-exceptionalism” that led to taking such risks. Nor were the friends who joined him at the swimming hole risk takers. Nate and his friends spent that July afternoon at the gorge and went for a swim simply because they had absolutely no idea that the placid looking swimming hole was dangerous. They never noticed an unobtrusive small green sign above another no smoking sign that was nowhere near the shoreline. They even saw others coming out of the swimming hole  that afternoon, and fly fishermen nearby.

Did the author of the Aug. 23 opinion piece — and do other students — know that the currents can pull even a strong swimmer down with no hope for survival? Watch Prof. Todd Cowen’s July interview on local Ithaca station 12 or speak to the professor himself and he will explain the dynamics of the powerful forces that pull swimmers under water. Read the November 2008 issue of the Cornell Alumni magazine on “Wild Waters,” where a NYS Police diver — the same diver who retrieved Nate’s body — is quoted as saying “From the surface, it looks like a nice place to dive. But it’s not safe at all. It’s not safe for anybody to be in there — not even a scuba diver.”  Read the trail map and safety information published by Cornell Plantations.

This information has been known about for years — and is taught to Ithaca High School students — but has not been delivered to Cornell students in an effective manner. Committees and task forces were set up at Cornell to deal with it three and five years ago but did not result in any effective long-term actions. The task force set up in 2008 after the tragic drowning of Doug Lowe ’11 designed warning signs that were finally created last Spring, three years later. But, somehow, these signs were not up on May 30 when Kendrick Castro drowned and were not up when both Nate and another student, Stanislaw Jaworski, drowned.

If the prior task forces had followed through with a sense of urgency, Nate might now be attending classes at Cornell, and Kendrick and Stanislaw might also be alive. And if the task forces had acted even earlier, many more young and promising lives could have been saved. We are baffled by the apparent absence of urgency about this deadly problem. Nate and most of those who drowned would have NEVER gone in if they had the knowledge of the real danger of never making it out alive. But please know that we applaud the new signs, which were finally installed last week.

The gorges don’t need to be closed off.  It is far more important that students be appropriately educated by experts who know the truth of the dangers. The configuration of the geology and the forces of the currents that lie beneath the deceptive surface needs to be described.  Rudimentary life saving equipment — poles, rope and life preservers — should be available. Swimmers caught breaking the law should be made to pay stiff penalties that discourage these activities. As we have repeatedly told the Cornell administration, we believe that a combination of  appropriately designed warning signs (such as we have seen at hazardous swim areas in national parks), educational initiatives (perhaps a video that depicts the dangers graphically and even takes the viewer to the Cayuga Medical Center morgue and the funerals of those who died),  serious disincentivizing penalties for violators, and the availability of basic and relatively inexpensive safety equipment would go a long way toward preventing these tragic deaths.

A memorial for Nate is planned for Sunday, Sept. 25 at Cornell and we appreciate the caring of his friends, teachers and staff in organizing this. However, the best possible memorial tribute to our son, Nathaniel, and to the other many victims of drowning in the gorge, will be to finally adopt measures that will prevent further deaths. This must be done immediately. It must not be consigned to a recurring cycle of additional task forces that are formed in response to a death but then fade in urgency until yet another tragedy occurs.

— Jacob and Maggi Rand

Jacob and Maggi Rand are the parents of Nathaniel Rand ’12, Gabriel Rand ’04 and Ethan Rand ’05. Nathaniel tragically drowned July 2 while swimming in Fall Creek gorge.