ITHACA, N.Y. — In the city of Ithaca, off the beaten path, there is a tunnel that has been around for nearly 200 years — Ezra’s Tunnel. It opens to the top of an area above Ithaca Falls where people swim, tan, and enjoy overlooking the city while surrounded by the sound of the falls. The tunnel was created for industrial use in 1832 as a waterway tunnel that “fed into a raceway which provided power for much of Ithaca.” It’s also illegal to be in the area and two people have died in the past six years swimming there.
In August, Cornell University student Winston Perez Ventura, who reportedly could not swim, drowned at the location. In 2011, Kendrick Castro died while swimming in the area the day after he graduated from Cornell.
Now, city officials are considering teaming up with Cornell University to block off the natural area on the other side of the tunnel with two steel fences: one would be about 16.5 feet tall and 14 feet wide, and the other would be about a 7.5-foot barrier.
For Todd Bittner, director of natural areas for Cornell Botanic Gardens, the recommendation is long overdue.
During a Planning & Economic Development Committee Meeting last week, he said that in addition to the student deaths, there are other dangers in the area as well.
He said, “It (the tunnel) brings you out to the most dangerous waterfall and plunge pool in the entire Fingerlakes region where multiple drowning have occurred and near deaths, and the risk isn’t just to the people who go out there, it’s also to the emergency responders…”
He said people who go into the area also risk dangers due to rockfalls and the tunnel hasn’t been maintained or brought up to city code for decades.
About half of the board agreed with Bittner, saying that the area should be closed off.
Second Ward Alderman Seph Murtagh said, “This is an area that is incredibly dangerous and a lot of times when those young people who are walking in there (the gorge areas) they don’t know what they’re walking into…I even think about my own experience in high school doing crazy things in these gorges. And I think that I would have appreciated the adults of my world making a simple change that would have prevented me dying or getting seriously injured.”
But not everyone on the board necessarily felt that it is the city’s role to intervene with fencing in natural areas.
“If you don’t know that swimming in the gorges in certain spots in dangerous by now, you’re not paying attention. Sorry, (that’s) just how I feel about it,” said Fifth Ward Alderman Michael Decatur. “Then I guess it comes down to, where does individual responsibility come into play, right? … We can’t fence our way through every aspect of that in our lives. We live in an areas with gorges. We have tens of thousands of students that come here knowing full well what the ramifications are of monkeying around in the gorges.”
Bittner said that Cornell is committed to providing educational opportunities to students about the dangers of some areas of the gorges, including the roughly 4,000 new students who come in as freshmen every year. But he said it’s not accurate to assume that all students are aware of the dangers.
Murtagh said that the “bureaucratic” warnings students receive from the university are often not enough to stymie their curiosity and excitement about being in Ithaca and around the gorges.
But First Ward Alderman Cynthia Brock said fatal accidents, while tragic, are part of the stewardship of having dangerous natural areas.
“I understand that we want to protect individuals, absolutely,” Brock said. “(But) how much are we going to dumb down our environment when people take risks, when people don’t follow instructions, when people don’t listen to (or) look at the signs that are right in front of them, or receive the information that they’re given. And is it our job as a municipality to create bumpers and barriers around everything that could possibly result in an injury?”
She said, “I cannot imagine living in Hawaii (where she grew up) and having Sunset Beach put behind a fence because surfers would die there every year, every single year. People come and they surf and it’s dangerous and they die.”
Brock was also concerned that with the idea that putting up fencing would set a precedent for fencing other natural areas.
Bittner said there’s already extensive fencing along the perimeter of Fall Creek and Cascadilla Gorge, and Brock said she knows there’s a pursuit to fence off other areas along Six Mile Creek.
“Once this precedent goes in, I see this being repeated that we’re just going to repeatedly fence off areas for fear of how dangerous they are to the public,” she said.
Murtagh said the debate about the tunnel is similar to the one that happened several years ago after a rash of suicides at Cornell University. Several students killed themselves by jumping off bridges and fences were subsequently added in an attempt to save lives. Available data from the university, however, does not indicate that the number of suicides at Cornell has decreased due to the fencing.
“I think the very same debate was had at that time. ..where the council came to eventually, I think, is that the public safety concerns really trumped the aesthetic enjoyment of the gorges,” Murtagh said. “I think even more so in this case that approach makes sense.”
The resolution made it out of committee in a 3-1 vote, with Brock voting against it.
Common Council will determine the fate of the tunnel at 6 p.m. Dec. 6 at city hall, located at 108 E. Green St.