September 1, 2011

Cornell Intensifies Gorge Safety Efforts

Print More

“YOU COULD DIE!” warns a sign recently placed near the Fall Creek Gorge as part of the University’s new initiative to make students more aware of the perils of swimming in the gorges.

Following three accidental deaths in the gorges this summer, Cornell has taken several steps to prevent further tragedies; It has increased police patrols, formed committees that will work to develop solutions to the issues and furthered education of freshmen.

Although no statistics exist concerning gorge swimming, officials said anecdotal evidence points toward the message getting across.

“We see a significant decrease. We think people are finally starting to take us seriously,” Cornell University Police Chief Kathy Zoner said, noting that most police interactions with students in the gorges go undocumented because police prefer to warn and educate students rather than make arrests or issue tickets.

From May 30 to July 2, three students — Kendrick Castro ’11, Nathaniel Rand ’12 and Stanislaw Jaworski grad — died in unrelated gorge accidents. Castro drowned in Fall Creek, Rand died after being trapped underwater near Ithaca Falls and Jaworski slipped and fell in the Fall Creek Gorge while hiking. According to Zoner, Jaworski was hiking in an area closed to the public.

Enforcement and Signs

CUPD has increased patrols near the gorge region, in an attempt to prevent more students from engaging in further risky behavior.

“We increased our presence to the best of our ability,” Zoner said. “Any people in the [gorges] we take the time to educate people.”

Cornell has been trying to get the message across to students that the gorges are dangerous by posting signs, like the one between Stewart Avenue Bridge and the suspension bridge, near the Fiji fraternity.

In addition to the boldface warning, the sign contains a graphic depicting how swimmers can be trapped underwater, even if the water appears calm.

Older signs, which do not contain graphics, are located near other gorge entrances on campus.

One sign, behind Risley Hall, reads “Swimming is illegal and PEOPLE HAVE DIED.”

They are necessary to warn students that both swimming and hiking in certain areas of the gorges hold risks, even if they appear safe, according to Todd Bittner, Cornell Plantations director of natural areas.

“The pool under the waterfalls is misleadingly deep and then there are currents,” Bittner said. “Any time that you’re hiking off trail, particularly at night, there’s an inherent danger.”


The new sign and increased police presence only play a small part of the University’s effort, officials said.

“We recognize signs aren’t enough,” Bittner said.

Though discussing the dangers of gorge swimming is something that has been done yearly, this year R.A.s were instructed to put extra emphasis on the inherent dangers of swimming or climbing in the gorges. They also warned freshmen of the increased likelihood of receiving a ticket for going in the gorges, according to Christian De Lazlo ’13, a Residential Advisor in Clara Dickson Hall.

“We push to the freshmen that [gorges] are dangerous,” he said.

Dean of Students Kent Hubbell ’67 also said the University has upped its outreach to incoming freshmen on gorge safety.

“What we’ve done to date is we’ve tried to speak to first year students throughout Orientation Week and Welcome Weekend,” Hubbell said. “We just made extra sure the message was conveyed to all new students in a variety of settings.”

Additionally, the University and the City of Ithaca created several committees — some of which predate this summer’s accidents and others that were created afterward — to explore ways to improve gorge safety and spread awareness. The University is awaiting the committees’ recommendations before taking further action, Hubbell said.

“Cornell is working with the city of Ithaca to improve safety there,” Hubbell said.

Early results

De Lazlo, a Clara Dickson R.A., said he believes that because of the University’s efforts to instruct students on the dangers of the gorges, fewer freshmen in Clara Dickson are going in the gorges this year compared to last year.

“Not as many kids are coming back with bathing suits or [posting] pictures on Facebook, but this is kind of a blinded view because I’m at class all the time,” he said.

However, some students have continued to swim in the gorges, despite the University’s efforts. Dan Farchione ’13 admitted to swimming in the gorges “two or three times a week during the peak of summer,” and said the that the deaths did not make him reconsider doing so.

“I think there are plenty of places where it’s a really nice calm pool of water. I don’t think it’s dangerous at all. Steer clear of the waterfalls. I don’t see how it can be dangerous [as long as you] stay in the calm areas,” he said.

Some students participate in riskier activity, such as climbing the slippery rock walls of the gorges.

“I see people doing stuff I would never do, climbing the side of the cliffs and climbing the waterfalls. That seems really dangerous,” Farchione said.

Original Author: Joseph Niczky