By: Sara McCloskey
On a warm day in Ithaca, the gorges attract everyone from locals, to students, to tourists. Although Ithaca is “gorges,” the cliffs and deep falls are an ominous reminder of how dangerous swimming in the gorges can be. Ithaca Fire Chief Tom Parsons has seen everything — the accidents, the injuries, and the difficulties that come with monitoring activities in the gorges.
“I was with a police officer,” Parsons recalls. “There was a whole group of people down in the Fall Creek area — a very dangerous area. So myself, and the police officer, and we had some firefighters in there early — we walked down to try to get these people to leave. It was where they were that was dangerous. It was just very treacherous. To make it worse, they were actually swimming out underneath some falls there. We tried to explain how dangerous [it was], and we asked them to leave. They said, ‘it’s our right to put ourselves at this risk level. We understand it.’ But you don’t understand the consequences, because the consequences go beyond the individual. It then becomes an affect on the community.”
On Aug. 31, a middle-aged woman fell 60 feet from Six Mile Creek’s Second Dam. She was later airlifted to Robert Packer Hospital. Accidents like this do not prevent people from jumping off the same cliffs that caused injuries the day before.
“The reality that someone died here or someone drowned here gets lost in a community like Ithaca,” Parsons says.
When there is a serious injury, Parsons says that it can take up to 20 safety personnel to transport the victim from a secluded area, like Second Dam, to an open space. The victim can then be airlifted to a trauma center for treatment. Parsons says he sometimes has to call off-duty officers to help at the scene. Some rescues require a diver with a breathing apparatus to search below the falls for drowned victims.
“It’s called a boil,” Parsons says. “It pulls you down and it basically creates a sucking action that draws you down. It’s hard to get out from underneath it. When you get trapped in it, even the strongest swimmers can’t get out of it. Sometimes you almost have to quit fighting it and hopefully the current — if you can hold your breath long enough — will take you out. Most people don’t. They get sucked under, they panic, they’re struggling, they lose orientation, and it’s kind of all over.”
Although there were no drownings this summer, Parsons says the fire department had to visit at least one of the gorges once a week. The only places citizens can legally swim are at state parks. At restricted swimming locations, there are signs that detail prohibited activities, but these signs are still not deterring swimmers, which Parsons says brings up a greater conversation for the community.
“For the community, for our elected officials, for the community leaders, we’re going to have to have a conversation about how do we make the gorges safer for people,” he says. “At the same time, [we] unfortunately have to restrict some access, or not restrict access. Maybe, the question is, do we just accept it as it is?”
As the heat of the summer comes to an end, this conversation is still not over.