Another Death at Elk River Falls

Published Wednesday, July 20, 2016 at 9:30 am
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Henderson County dive personnel in the water during the search for the Jacques Downing. Photo by Kyle Kitchin – Linville Central Rescue Squad.

By Jesse Wood

Another person died jumping off of Elk River Falls in Avery County.

Avery County Sheriff Kevin Frye identified the deceased as 39-year-old Jacques Downing of Newland, who jumped off the falls on Saturday and never resurfaced. Out-of-area dive teams eventually found Downing’s body 31 feet below the surface and five feet off the rock wall on Tuesday, according to Kyle Kitchin of the Linville Central Rescue Squad.

Kitchen said that every emergency agency in Avery County aided in the rescue mission and a few outside and state emergency management agencies, including the forestry service and three different dive times were on site. Henderson County Dive Team recovered the body as the Charlotte Fire Department brought their sonar equipment to aid in the search.

The falls are on federal land within the Appalachian Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest. This is the most recent death to occur at the popular swimming hole and falls – with the previous death occurring in similar fashion 11 months ago when a young Charlotte woman jumped from the falls and never surfaced.

In 2010, a 40-year-old man drowned after diving or falling at Elk River Falls, and in 2006, a 16-year-old boy from Elizabethton, Tenn., died after jumping from the top of the falls and being sucked under by the current.

In a statement, Frye said that this is roughly the 15th death to occur at Elk River Falls in the last 20 years and is calling on the federal authorities to take action.

“My heart breaks and our prayers are with a wonderful Avery County family. It is sad that for 10 years we have tried to get the federal government to take some type of action to curb these needless deaths about 15 in the last 20 years,” Frye said. “This does not count those severally injured or paralyzed. Each time rescue workers and divers put their lives at risk to help provide closure for a family. Social media and videos have made the problem much worse in recent years and the problem will continue to grow until the federal bureaucracy finally pays attention to this problem, which could be greatly lessened.”

After Sheida Hosseinzadeh, 26, of Charlotte, died last August, authorities noted that fencing off the area had been discussed over the years as signs alerting of the dangers of the falls keep being removed.

The Avery Journal-Times reported that Frye will meet with Appalachian Disrict Ranger Matt McComb on Thursday to figure out “innovative ways” to alert visitors to the falls about the “hazards and history of injuries and fatalities to try to minimize.”

In acknowledging the Elk River Falls track record of tragedy, McCombs said that the average visitor hikes down to the falls and enjoys their time in the pools and on the rocks – not by jumping off the 50-foot fall.

“I will be sitting down later this week with the Avery County Sheriff’s Office and leadership in the rescue squad to figure out more innovative ways, other than just signing, that we can raise awareness about the hazards and the history of injuries and fatalities to try to minimize the potential that folks make that choice and take that risk,” McCombs told the paper.

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