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Students 'risked their lives' trying to save man at popular NC waterfall, his parents say

U.S. Forest Service warns of the dangers of Elk River Falls

Elk River Falls on the Appalachian Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest is a beautiful scenic attraction. It’s also one of the deadliest scenic attractions in Avery County, NC.
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Elk River Falls on the Appalachian Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest is a beautiful scenic attraction. It’s also one of the deadliest scenic attractions in Avery County, NC.

Several Appalachian State students and others "risked their lives" trying to save a 26-year-old Ohio man who drowned at Elk River Falls in the N.C. mountains on Sunday, the man's parents said in a news release issued by the Avery County Sheriff's Office on Friday.

The sheriff's office identified the man as Thomas Edward McCardle Jr. of Martins Ferry, Ohio. His body remained somewhere at the bottom of the falls on Friday, as rescuers "temporarily suspended" their six-day search "due to high water and incoming weather," according to the sheriff's office news release posted on Facebook.

"The search will continue as soon as weather and conditions permit," the sheriff's office said.

McCardle's mother, Barbara McCardle, said in the sheriff's news release that she and her husband, Thomas, "would like to thank everyone who has worked to recover our son and helped us deal with this tragic accident."

Their son had been in the area for a wedding when he went to Elk River Falls, which he'd previously visited, the sheriff's office said.

McCardle is believed to have accidentally slid off a rock into the water at the bottom of the falls, sheriff's investigators said. He apparently "got caught in and drug under by very strong currents due to the previous very heavy rain," according to the sheriff's news release.

The sheriff's Facebook post also described "a heroic effort" by a group of young people who tried to save McCardle.

When ASU student Kristin McDaniel saw McCardle go into the water, she immediately jumped in to try to rescue him, according to the sheriff's Facebook post. So did Gary Kennedy and Michael Austin Tysinger, both of Lexington, North Carolina; Maddison McNeill, also of ASU; and Matthew Glynn of Boone.

According to the sheriff's office, Kristin McDaniel "was almost taken under by the current in her attempt to hold onto McCardle." But her friends formed a human chain "and were able to get her to safety but not McCardle."

McCardle's parents, who also live in Martins Ferry, arrived at the falls on Monday morning.

In Friday's news release, Barbara McCardle thanked each of the rescuers by name. She also thanked Larry Cuthbertson and Josh Henson of Linville/Central Rescue, Frank Catalano, Danny Phillips, Lee Buchanan and Avery County Sheriff Kevin Frye "for making this difficult time as easy as possible.

"They have assured us they will not quit until our son is recovered no matter how long it takes for the water to recede enough to resume operations," Barbara McCardle said in the post..

In also thanking the various fire departments, sheriff's investigators and emergency rescue groups that have helped in the search, Barbara McCardle said they , too, have risked their lives.

The McCardles thanked the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Congress for helping "warn others of the danger of Elk River Falls," according to the sheriff's Facebook post.

“We do not think the general public understands how dangerous this particular piece of water is, especially after heavy rains” Thomas McCardle said on the post.

The U.S. Forest Service calls Elk River Falls "one of the deadliest scenic attractions in Avery County, NC. Deaths and very serious injuries including paralysis have occurred when people jumped from the top of this waterfall."

"Don’t be the next victim and don’t put emergency responders at risk," the forest service says on its Elk River Falls online page.

As of July 2016, 15 people had died at the falls over 20 years, Avery County Sheriff Sheriff Kevin Frye told the High Country Press at the time. Frye told the (Asheville) Citizen-Times this week that "about one death occurs at the falls each year."

In August 2015, a 26-year-old woman jumped 40 to 60 feet from the falls and never surfaced, according to the High Country Press.

According to Visit NC, Elk River Falls is "the most impressive waterfall from sheer volume" in the border area.

The "plunge pool" at the falls "is extremely large" and draws crowds in summer, according to Visit NC. People hike, picnic, wade and swim there, although signs warn of the dangers of rock climbing and wading at the bottom of the waterfall.

Staying safe at waterfalls

The U.S Forest Service said in a waterfall safety alert that "numerous fatalities and serious injuries" occur at waterfalls each year, so visitors should heed any warning signs and follow this advice:.

"▪ Never climb on or around waterfalls and never play in the water above a waterfall. Rocks can be slippery, and it's easy to lose your balance especially with bare feet..

"▪ Currents near waterfalls can be extremely swift, even in areas further upstream.

"▪ Never jump off waterfalls or dive into plunge pools at the base of waterfalls. Rocks and logs can be hidden beneath the surface. Often waterfall pools have swirling water or currents that can drag and keep even strong swimmers underwater.

"Swimming or wading near waterfall plunge pools is dangerous. Even if you have seen other people enjoy playing around waterfalls, be aware that they have been lucky to escape unharmed."

Leigh Ann Angle, park ranger, gives tips about hiking at South Mountains State Park.

Joe Marusak: 704-358-5067; @jmarusak
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