ITHACA, N.Y. – Following the death of an incoming Cornell student who drowned in Fall Creek nearly two weeks ago, students and other visitors of Ithaca’s well-known gorges are reminded to take safety precautions and read the signs surrounding the natural areas before swimming or hiking.
After a five-hour search on August 5, New York State Police divers recovered Winston Perez-Ventura, who entered the area above Ithaca Falls to swim, but did not resurface, according to reports.
In a release following the tragedy, Acting Chief Pete Tyler said, “the Ithaca gorges are so, so beautiful but they can be very dangerous if folks don’t obey the posted signs. I encourage everyone to please, please follow the posted signs on the gorge trails, especially those that prohibit trespassing and swimming. The signs are in place for no other reason than to keep folks safe when they enter our gorges.”
Lt. Tom Basher of the Ithaca Fire Department confirmed that the area where Perez-Ventura entered the water to swim was accessed by a popular abandoned waterway, commonly known as Ezra’s Tunnel.
“I believe the original purpose of the tunnel was to divert water to the gun factory,” Basher said. “It’s been in existence for a long time.”
The City of Ithaca, in conjunction with Cornell University and local law enforcement agencies, has been considering restricting access to the tunnel, a discussion which has been ongoing, according to Ithaca’s Chief of Staff Dan Cogan.
“With the recent death of the Cornell student, there is renewed interest in doing something sooner rather than later, especially now with students coming in,” Cogan said. “At the same time, people do realize it is pretty cool to go there and see it, so we may be taking away people’s experience of Ithaca by not being able to go there.”
Cogan said the key in coming to a solution would be finding a balance in safety and letting people make their own decisions.
Basher said in the summer months, the fire department puts out messages every few weeks and also releases regular warnings throughout the seasons.
“You’re just talking about a massive population of people and it’s impossbile to reach everybody,” he said. “If people have just read the warning signs – it’s a beautiful area, but there are places to go where lifeguards are available with safe swimming conditions.”
Common Council member Josephine Martell said there has been extensive signage installed on Willard Way, the road which leads to Ezra’s Tunnel, but are often no help when averting gorge visitors.
“We regularly install signs up by Willard Way, but they are repeatedly vandalized and removed,” Martell said. “The city is in discussion with Cornell about jointly exploring the possibility of closing off the tunnel, but it really comes down to the funds.”
Basher said many falls in the area, including Ithaca Falls, have a re-circulation which creates a boil where people often get caught. Due to the old-age of the gorges and waterfalls, he said the rocks, which have been pounded by water for hundreds of years, are typically jagged in shape.
“You might go into the hole at the top, but it’s not typically straight,” Basher said. “It’s often shaped like a comma, where people might get pulled under and then stuck beneath the rock – things loosen up in the winter months too, but every area has its own dangers and hazards.”
Closing off the tunnel may be a difficult task to navigate with public safety officials in mind, according to Common Council member Graham Kerslick. Kerslick, who is also a member of the gorge safety task force, said the tunnel also acts as an access way for gorge rescuers.
“It’s also an issue of endangering the lives of other people from emergency services,” Kerslick said. “Even if there aren’t deaths, if people get trapped, that requires emergency services to go in there to rescue these people.”
Basher, who said people would find their way to the falls with or without the tunnel, also said it was necessary to keep an open passageway for public safety officials to be able to make it to the falls in case of emergency in a necessary gorge rescue. Closing the tunnel off may restrict that, he said.
Currently, discussion regarding the future of the tunnel is still ongoing within the city. Colgan said Cornell is currently coming up with an estimate of what resticting the tunnel with a fence migh cost the city.
“Once Common Council gets those, the discussions will continue,” he said “Things like where the money might come from, whether it comes from city budget or Cornell or outside donors, and then we will have to have some kind of approval.”
While Martell, Colgan, Basher and Kerslick all spoke separately on the issue of Ezra’s Tunnel, the four all agreed on one thing: while the falls may be a danger for those unfamiliar with their deadly capabilities, they are still a natural beauty within the local community. While Cornell and the city want to encourage access to these places, some members are finding places like Ezra’s Tunnel pose significantly more danger to visitors than other nearby waterfalls.
“I wouldn’t use the word liability to describe the falls,” Basher said. “I will say that things that appear tranqil and calm are not always so, but I consider these falls a treasure.”