Use-permit and mandatory safety course under consideration for entry into gorge area after Sunday tragedy

Trails in and out of the Cummins Falls river-gorge area in Jackson County have been closed as a result of a fatal weekend flash flood that took the life of a 2-year-old boy.

Jim Bryson, deputy director of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, issued a memo Wednesday affirming that access to the Blackburn Fork River at Cummins Falls State Park will remain blocked “until we can evaluate the incident and review and implement additional safety protocols.”

The memo was addressed to David W. Salyers, commissioner of TDEC, which is the agency that oversees state parks and natural areas in Tennessee.

“At a minimum, the falls and gorge area will remain closed until the department conducts a full assessment of the circumstances and considers and implements additional protocols to address rain events in the watershed area,” Bryson wrote.

Trails around the state park in the forest above the river gorge are still open.

On Sunday, more than 60 people had to be aided by regional rescue personnel after becoming trapped in the rugged river gorge below Cummins Falls as a result of rising waters and increasingly rapid currents. Fourteen people required “swiftwater or rope evacuation” in order to reach safety.

The child who died, Steven Pierce of Eddyville, Ky., was reportedly separated from his family in treacherous currents and subsequently drowned. His body was located Monday morning “a couple hundred yards” downstream from the falls, a state parks official said.

The sudden stream surge — which arose in just a couple minutes — resulted from thunderstorms dumping rain upstream in the watershed, not over the state park itself, according to state park officials.

Four Tennessee state lawmakers who represent the surrounding region issued a sternly worded letter to Bryson on Tuesday, asking why additional safety measures promised in the past haven’t yet been implemented at the park, which has been the site of fatalities resulting from sudden water-rises before.

“In 2017, your department announced plans to install a warning system at Cummins Falls State Park to better monitor the gorge’s rising water levels,” stated the letter, written by Republican Sen. Paul Bailey of Sparta, House GOP Caucus Chairman Cameron Sexton of Crossville, Republican Rep. Ryan Williams of Cookeville and Democratic Rep. John Mark Windle of Livingston. “It is now June 2019, another life has been lost and the warning system has still not been installed.”

They said assurances were made following the last fatality that “a system would be implemented in an effort to prevent further deaths.”

“Why has this warning system not been installed at Cummins Falls State Park? It is past time to make installing a warning system a priority,” they wrote. “We cannot continue losing precious lives at one of Tennessee’s most visited state parks. We ask for your immediate attention to this matter and prompt installation of a warning system before more lives are lost.”

Bryson’s memo, sent a day after receiving the correspondence from the legislators, outlines a series of “ongoing actions” to improve safety in the gorge. He said an “After Action Report” will examine park polices and investigate park staff’s actions “before, during and after the incident.”

Bryson said TDEC is in communication with the National Weather Service to better monitor the watershed above Cummins Falls and develop “a new protocol for warning of potentially dangerous situations.”

Also, water-level measuring devices will be placed upstream to alert park staff to surge hazards, he said.

“An emergency procurement authorization has been secured to purchase and install a water flow monitoring system as an early warning system,” wrote Bryson, who was just last month appointed to the TDEC position in which he now serves. “It will be installed with all possible speed.”

In the future, the Cummins Falls State Park may establish “a permit requirement that will help us manage the visitation and ensure visitors have attended the safety program before going down into the gorge.”

Cummins Falls park staff, he added, “will be set up to have monitors for regular weather updates and the ability to receive notification from the flow meters that we are working with (Tennessee Tech University) to implement.”