In the past 25 years, the Forest Service estimates there have been nearly 50 waterfall related deaths, which includes 37 fatalities on 44 waterfalls assessed between 1993 and 2013. In addition, the following are the number of waterfall-related deaths for the past three years:
Jan. 9. Dry Falls, Nantahala Ranger District of Nantahala National Forest
July 16. Elk River Falls, Appalachian Ranger District, Pisgah National Forest.
July 21. Rainbow Falls, Pisgah Ranger District, Pisgah National Forest/Gorges State Park.
Nov 22. Moore Cove Falls, Pisgah Ranger District on U.S. 276 near Brevard.
for the past three years:
June 24. Catawba Falls, McDowell County area of Pisgah National Forest.
Aug. 23. Moore Cove Falls, Pisgah Ranger District.
Feb. 18: South Mountains State Park, Burke County.
Feb 26. Catawba Falls, McDowell County in Pisgah National Forest.
May 20. Elk River Falls, Avery County in Pisgah National Forest.
June 2. Upper Creek Falls, Grandfather Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest.
June 23. Rainbow Falls, Transylvania County area of Pisgah National Forest.
The most fatalities – 13 - have occurred at Whitewater Falls, which is near Cashiers in Transylvania County. At more than 400 feet high, it’s considered one of the two highest waterfalls in the Eastern United States, said Nantahala District Ranger, Mike Wilkins.
There have also been seven fatalities on the Horsepasture River, which includes Drift, Rainbow, Stairway, and Turtleback Falls, and six fatalities on Elk River Falls over the last 10 years. Other waterfalls have had only one or two fatalities. Most accidents at Whitewater Falls happen in summer when people are tempted by low water levels to wade across the river, walking past warning signs that scream “Danger!”
The Nantahala and Pisgah national forests have got a lot of waterfalls. Most of them will kill you if you get up on top at low water. They’re inviting at 3, 4, 5, 6 inches deep, you think you’re OK. But those rocks are so slick, there’s no way to catch yourself. The water just slides you over, and then it’s over. In the mid-1990s the Forest Service built an observation deck to allow people a great view without having to get to close and charge $2 per car for daily use. But it doesn’t seem to have deterred people from getting into the falls.
Todd Dillard, emergency management director for Jackson County, has responded to many calls at Whitewater Falls, which he said can take many long, dangerous hours for rescuers, and involve multiple agencies. He said the death toll and a number of rescues was so high in the 1980s that local fire departments built a concrete and metal rescue high line above the falls, with a cable that runs from the first lookout all the way to the bottom of the falls, to greatly speed-up the inevitable rescues.
“Most of the fatalities have occurred from people falling from the top. People want to see it and get close to it. They just can’t just stop. It’s human curiosity,” Dillard said.
They’re so slick. One slip can kill you.