(UPDATE: 8:46 p.m. Sept. 4): 20 people from eight different crews were able to recover the body from Red Fork Falls after about four hours. Search and rescue leaders told News Channel 11 it was one of the most difficult recoveries.
“We were all rigged up on ropes. We brought the deceased out on a rope system, we had to be very very careful so we didn’t cause injury to any of our personnel,” said Bart Ray, Unicoi County Search and Rescue Director.
The call of a fallen hiker came in around 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.
“There was a water element involved [in] the recovery to where we had to remove the victim from the waterway then we had to begin technical rope operations to ensure life safety for the responders, to ensure that we were operating in a safe manner that we didn’t have any other risk of injury during the operation itself,” explained Unicoi Co. EMS Chief, Adam Copas. “[This was] probably one of the most technical operations that we’ve had to experience in Unicoi County since we’ve been involved here in 2020… certainly one of the most technical recoveries that I’ve been a part of in my 15 years of EMS experience.”
The victim, a man in his mid-thirties, was hiking with a group when he fell.
“Down to the base of the falls is about 3/4 of a mile but during that 3/4 of a mile I think we should expect that we descended about 400 feet, very technical 90-degree angles at some points where we had to use technical systems to ensure life safety when we were both lowering and raising ourselves to the victim and the egress outside of the woods,” Copas said. “The 3/4 of a mile, a person may be able to hike that in about 45 minutes– it might have [taken] us about that long to get to the victim. That additional 3 hours it took for that operation was to remove the victim from the woods so it takes just about 3 times as long for us to make the egress as it does to make the access.”
Ray told News Channel 11 that Red Fork Falls isn’t a trail the forest service recognizes. “It is a very used trail, there’s a lot of people that use it, but it’s something that probably should not be used because it’s very treacherous every for us trained personnel that are trained in ropes and search and rescue, fire department, EMS, it’s treacherous for us as well.”
Along with treacherous terrain, cell service was nonexistent and radio service wasn’t much better.
“Use trails that are recognized and are maintained or taken care of. I encourage folks to use trail heads that have cell phone service. That’s another safety element as well. We have very little communication up on this ridge. The fact that there is very little service… very minimal radio service. Once you get up here – not only are you isolated into a very mountainous area… but you’re isolated from communication which makes things very difficult,” Copas said. “It’s very difficult for dispatchers to understand what units have arrived on scene. From an EMS leader’s standpoint, it makes it difficult for me to understand what units are available and what their locations are… so that personnel accountability becomes very important and it increases our risk as well when we have a hard time identifying what resources we have, what resources are on their way and how we radio and get communication to be able to relay it for any additional resources that we may need.”
Sunday’s tragedy is one search and rescue leaders say they see too often.
“I encourage folks to make sure that when they take their steps and when they’re utilizing these trail accesses that they use their good footing, they come in wearing the appropriate equipment and that we’re not doing things at home to prevent ourselves from having a good experience once we get out on the trails,” Copas said.
At this point in the investigation, foul play isn’t suspected. The investigation remains ongoing.
(UPDATE: 5:47 p.m. Sept. 4) According to Assistant Chief Randall Oaks for Unicoi County Fire Rescue, the victim was a male in his mid-thirties who was hiking with friends before the incident. The fall occurred about 3/4 of a mile from the Red Fork Falls trailhead.
About 19 people are working on the recovery from Unicoi Search and Rescue, Fire, the Forestry Division, EMS and EMA and Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department.
UNICOI COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) — A person has died after falling off Red Fork Falls on Sunday.
According to Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley, an unidentified person fell off Red Fork Falls in Unicoi County on Sunday. The subject has been pronounced deceased.
Sheriff Hensley said his investigators are still on the scene.