ITHACA, NY – Ithaca College Security Officer, EMT and part-time park policeman Sergeant William J. Chapin died, 30 years ago yesterday, while trying to rescue two college students at Buttermilk Falls. He was 25.

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On the afternoon of Mar. 15, 1986, two Cornell students entered a closed area of Buttermilk Falls State Park, according to a transcript of an 2005 interview with Don Murray, chief of New York State Park Police.

The park was closed at the time due to hazardous, icy conditions. There was a fence and warning sign that the students bypassed. While Murray described it to CNN as a “spring-type day,” the waters were rushing at flood-level and still icy cold due to snow runoff.

The two students became trapped on an ice formation just above Buttermilk Creek.

Chapin, who was off-duty and on his way to a retirement party for an employee of Bangs Ambulance at the time, dressed in a sport coat and dress clothes, still opted to respond to the call, Murray explained in the interview.

“He knew that area. He wanted to help and see what he could do to come up with a rescue,” Murray said.

One student, Paul Sheers, had already slid in to the waters and would later be found dead from drowning. As Chapin made his way toward the students to attempt a rescue, he too slipped on a sheet of ice and was swept away by the rushing water.

According to a video (posted below) telling Chapin’s story, the men wouldn’t be found until four days later. After night one, rescuers began to lose hope. Rescue workers, many of them personal friends of Chapin, held a memorial service for their fallen colleague, dropping a flowered wreath from a bridge into the creek.

Chapin’s body was later found in a pool of water, right where the wreath had floated to.

In 2015, Chapin was accepted into the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, which honors law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty, according to Ithaca College.

Chapin was similarly honored by the National EMS Memorial Service in 2011. His entry on that site tells us a little more about the man:

William graduated from New Berlin High School and attended Hartwick College and Tompkins Cortland Community College. Like many people in EMS, he was very deeply rooted in his community and belonged to many other emergency organizations, including the New Berlin Volunteer Fire Department. He took his job seriously and decided to become an Advanced Emergency Medical Technician level 3, one of the highest levels of care provider in New York State at the time. Ithaca College, New York State Park Police, Finger Lakes Region and Bangs Ambulance recognized Chapin for his work.

You can also view the video below which tells Chapin’s story in detail:

(Featured photo courtesy of Ithaca: Gorges, Waterfalls and Cayuga Lake Facebook page)

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.