ITHACA, N.Y. — Early Sunday evening, Ithaca’s gorge rangers stopped at Second Dam near Giles Street to kick illegal jumpers out of the water.
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Then they went to First Dam. By the time they got there, less than an hour later, they heard sirens heading to the Second Dam area they had just left.
The gorge rangers would learn a little later that a swimmer died in an accident at Second Dam. Law enforcement say a man in his 20’s jumped into the water south of the dam, failed to return to the surface, and was pulled out of the water by his friends. Attempts at CPR were unsuccessful.
Eric Richardson, 20, of Virgil, would later be identified as the victim. The Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office continues to investigate.
“We extend our deepest sympathies to the families,” says Julie Holcomb, clerk for the city of Ithaca. “It’s absolutely devastating.”
Richardson’s death marks the first gorge swimming death in Ithaca in a number of years, but follows two accidental deaths at the Fall Creek Gorge in 2011. Cornell and Ithaca officials responded to those incidents by increasing gorge education and rehabilitation programs, and those efforts have shown signs of success.
Still, in June, Holcomb appeared at City Hall to raise the alarm over a growing number of nighttime partiers at Second Dam. As the Ithaca Voice reported at the time, city officials were increasingly concerned with reports of hundreds of people flocking from all over the area to illegally swim at Second Dam.
Officials printed out informational pamphlets to give to the gorge rangers and discussed targeted law enforcement to curtail illegal swimming and jumping. This weekend’s death, while still under investigation, suggests that those efforts fell short.
“It’s very hard: We take these accidents very personally,” Holcomb said. “We need everybody’s cooperation, and we need the community’s help; we need help from everyone in the area … it’s bigger than what we can handle alone through law enforcement alone.”
Holcomb relayed the information at the top of this story about how the gorge rangers had tried stopping Second Dam’s illegal swimmers on Sunday evening. “The gorge rangers were just devastated,” Holcomb said.
Holcomb noted that the gorge rangers have no law enforcement authority and are mostly confined to handing out informational brochures on the dangers of swimming in the gorges.
“We try very hard every year to get information out there so people can make informed choices, and somehow we’re just not able to reach everyone,” Holcomb said. “I think it’s fair to say that everyone who has worked on this issue is absolutely devastated.”
City Hall officials will soon be meeting to decide next steps about how to best ensure gorge safety moving forward. It’s too soon to say what actions, if any, might be taken to prevent a future incident, according to Holcomb.
“I think we’re still all just kind of digesting what happened,” she said.
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