The Times West Virginian

June 14, 2013

Valley Falls great recreational area, but don’t ignore the rules on safety

Times West Virginian

— The signs at Valley Falls State Park couldn’t be more clear:

“Danger. Rocks are slippery. Hazardous currents and rapids. Swimming and wading prohibited.”

The signs also note that alcoholic beverages are prohibited and that the minimum fine for violating the rules is $167.

Those regulations have been prominently featured in the news this week following a dog rescue at the park last Saturday.

Park superintendent Ron Fawcett said a man and a woman were in the river along with a 3-year-old girl. They had two dogs, both of which were on leashes, which is required by state rules, but “while they were swimming, they turned the dogs loose on the rock above,” Fawcett said.

One of the dogs leaped off a 2 1/2-foot ledge, was swept over the first set of falls and became stranded on the rocks. Two fishermen jumped in to rescue it, and one of them was nearly swept over the second set of falls.

Fawcett said he screamed and gestured at the fishermen to stop, but they couldn’t hear him over the roar of the water. The Winfield Volunteer Fire Department responded with help.

There has been debate since the incident about whether any charges should be filed. The state’s Division of Natural Resources is “not involved in this in any way, shape or form,” said Capt. Roy E. Cool, DNR Law Enforcement Section, since its officers were not at the scene.

We’re not taking sides when it comes to filing charges. Fawcett, to his credit, has been carefully reviewing the situation with others. It’s clear that rules were broken, but when there is an opportunity to save a life — human or animal — it’s certainly not uncommon to react in an instant and not think of consequences.

We simply want to stress the importance of following the rules and thinking safety when visiting Valley Falls. That’s being ignored by way too many — “almost on a daily basis,” Fawcett noted.

“People will see me standing there in full uniform,” Fawcett said. “They see the signs that even have the minimum fines on them. They see the water swirling like that. Why take a chance?”

Swimming, wading and using alcohol have been banned at Valley Falls since 1993, after a lawsuit concerning a drowning was filed against the park.

“Before that, there were two to five drownings and dozens of water rescues a year here,” Fawcett said. “There have still been eight drownings since swimming was banned.

“People don’t understand the current and undertow and coldness of the water. The falls are only 10 miles by river from the Tygart River Dam (in Taylor County). The water is 140 feet deep at the dam.

“On the hottest day in July, the water is ice cold. If you’re not out of it in 10 minutes, there is no chance of revival. So we’re pretty sticky about the ban.”

More than 150 drownings have been documented, he said, most in the past 60-70 years.

For Fawcett, it’s personal.

He has pulled eight bodies out of the river in the 18 years he’s run the Marion County park. Fawcett, a trained diver, said the river is the most dangerous place he’s dived in 30 years.

“You’ve got a 14-foot drop and then an 18-foot drop,” he said. “This creates a tremendous whirlpool-on-whirlpool. This is the worst place I have ever had to dive as a rescuer.”

Hidden below is another hazard — twisted railroad steel washed into the river after an 1888 flood.

“There are boulders at the first and second falls,” Fawcett added. “If you fall and go down with the current, you could be slammed into the boulders, and there are trees with branches under the water that would be like a sword going through you.

“Once you go down, there is nothing to grab onto. The rocks are smooth and slick. If you’re washed over the falls, it will be too late.”

If a person reaches the third and fourth sets of falls, “It becomes a recovery, not a rescue,” he said.

Valley Falls is promoted as a 1,145-acre day-use park that hosts “a variety of outdoor recreation including fishing, picnicking, kayaking, and 18 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails.”

We’re fortunate to have such a fine recreational area mere minutes from Fairmont, but observe the rules when you visit.

“This place is beautiful, but it will kill you in a heartbeat,” Fawcett said.

Those are words we must never forget.