ITHACA, N.Y. — When Ithaca Firefighter and paramedic Kenny Thompson received the call early Saturday morning for a gorge rescue, he had no idea the college-aged man would be alive when they got to the scene.

“We have to decide, you know, is this a rescue or a recovery….My gut told me it was a recovery,” he said.

Thompson has been a firefighter with the Ithaca Fire Department for eight years. He said people who fall or jump into the gorges usually sustain fatal injuries.

He and other firefighters at Station 9 in Collegtown rushed to load into the firetruck and, en-route to Willard Way by the Stewart Avenue bridge above Ithaca Falls, found out that the man was alive. 

The tone of the mission changed dramatically at that point.

“Are we going to have to do a rope rescue and rappel hundreds of feet into the darkness?,” he thought.

Thompson said that recoveries are slower paced — they’re more controlled and calm as workers carefully retrieve the deceased person from the gorge.

Rescues from the bottom of the gorge, though, have to happen quickly because a person’s chance of survival depends heavily on how quickly they’re able to get medical treatment.

“We just know that it’s going to be a challenge — that we know no matter what it is — but at night time it just really exponentially adds to the level of difficulty,” Thompson said.

Closer to downtown at the central station, Acting Lieutenant Jared Gebel said another group of firefighters were also getting ready to go to the scene, despite only one unit initially being called to the scene.

“It pretty much consumed all of our personnel,” Thompson  said, noting that off-duty firefighters, Ithaca Police, Cornell emergency officials, and Bangs Ambulance were also called to the scene.

When the crew arrived, firefighters set up a 24-foot ladder near the bridge and rigged ropes around it.

Then two firefighters — Adam Buck and Lieutenant George Apgar — used the ladder to get to the old water sluice for the Ithaca Gun Factory and walked to the bottom of the gorge. The area was dark but, with the help of lights from a firetruck on the bridge, flashlights on helmets and handheld flashlights, rescue workers were able to see.

When firefighters caught sight of the man, they found him one of the worst possible places he could have been. He was on the opposite side of swiftly moving water in the gorge, right along the edge of the water.

“If he had rolled over, he’d have gone into the water and that would have been catastrophic for him,” Thompson said.

Gebel said the water was fast moving and as high as waist-deep, but luckily was not too cold.

“That was the most difficult part of the whole event,” he said. “Just every step is difficult to take.”

By the time firefighters were able to load the man into a stokes rescue basket, the man — who was initially talking and responsive — was slipping in and out of consciousness. But firefighters were able to keep the man out of the water and transport him to the opposite side of the bank.

“Bangs was able to initiate advanced care right there,” Thompson said, about paramedics who were on-hand in the gorge to help.

After the initial treatment, the patient was walked out through the sluice, hoisted the last 100-feet of the gorge, and transported to a waiting LifeNet helicopter at Jessup Field on the Cornell University campus.

“It really, for something like this to happen, it went really smooth,” Thompson said about the rescue.

The name and condition of the man is not being released at this time.

Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at jalmendarez@ithacavoice.com; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.