For a long time, emergency responders, physicians and news media who cover accidents have felt a sense of helplessness and dread as each season brings deaths and serious injuries to people falling from waterfalls.
It’s common for editorial pages such as this one to warn people to be cautious around cascades to avoid tragic deaths and life-altering injuries that are all too common. But those warnings often come too late.
That’s why it is great that a team from the Transylvania County Emergency Management and Rescue Squad staged a waterfall rescue Wednesday in Pisgah National Forest, highlighting the seriousness of waterfall-related injuries and the resources required for rescues.
“We hope this is an image that will stick in people’s minds and serve as a reminder of the potential for injury to themselves and their loved ones when they are in the vicinity of moving water,” said Bobby Cooper, EMS director for Transylvania County, as the team demonstrated what’s required to extract a patient in a basket up the side of a waterfall.
The drill augments a waterfall safety awareness campaign that the Transylvania County Tourism Development Authority launched in coordination with Pisgah National Forest, DuPont State Recreational Forest, Gorges State Park and emergency leaders.
Known as the Land of Waterfalls for its hundreds of cascades, Transylvania County experienced six waterfall deaths in 2016 and one last year, Times-News staff writer Andrew Mundhenk reported. This year has seen fatal accidents at Whitewater Falls just across the South Carolina state line, and at Elk River Falls in Avery County.
Pisgah District Ranger Dave Casey reviewed some common rules for safety. These include never climbing on waterfalls, avoiding swimming in pools above them, and keeping a close eye on children. Streambeds and rocks can be super slippery, and strong currents can quickly carry victims away to plunge to their death or incur devastating injuries.
“For our team, we expect this,” said Mark Shepherd, a physician assistant with Mission Health. “Early spring all through summer we see these waterfall incidents. It’s always pretty tragic, because most of them are preventable.”
The median age of victims is 27, with 66 percent between the ages of 11 and 25, according to data gathered by Mission Health over the past couple of years.
Given the youth of many victims, the Transylvania County Tourism Development Authority is providing a potentially life-saving service by distributing cards with waterfall safety tips to visitor centers and schools.
While locals previously enjoyed unfettered access to Triple Falls in DuPont State Recreational Forest, the forest made a smart decision to cordon off an area between the cascades to keep people from getting too close to the edge. Still, signs, ropes and flyers only work if people heed them.
Often people are so enthralled with being close to waterfalls that they forget how dangerous they can be. Hopefully these initiatives will help prevent death and suffering among those who are drawn to these spectacular examples of our region’s natural beauty.