Rainbow Falls slip claims life of visiting teen
By Dan Brown / Staff
RAINBOW FALLS -- A July 4 fatal fall from the top of Rainbow Falls in Transylvania County just east of Sapphire resulted in tragedy for the family of a Charlotte teen.
H’Money Sui, 16, from Charlotte, was crossing the Horse Pasture River about 100 feet above Rainbow Falls in Pisgah National Forest, with a group of about 25 family and friends when she slipped and fell in the river, according to Cathy Dowd, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service in Asheville. Dowd said Sui’s 11-year-old sister grabbed for her after she fell, but in turn slipped and fell herself.
“An older member of the group managed to grab the 11 year old, but Sui went over the falls,” said Dowd. “The accident happened around noon and her body was recovered by divers around 5 p.m.”
Sui fell from the top of the falls, a distance totaling 150-feet, not the 185-feet as reported by other news agencies, Dowd said. Hikers usually access Rainbow Falls through Gorges State Park, but the falls are actually in adjacent Pisgah National Forest. They are sometimes described as the signature falls on the Horse Pasture River.
Rescue crews from several firefighter and emergency agencies responded to the 911 call, including Lake Toxaway Volunteer Fire Department, Balsam Grove Fire Department, Rosman Fire and Rescue, Little River Fire and Rescue, Brevard Fire Department, Brevard Rescue Squad, Henderson County Rescue Squad, Transylvania County Emergency Management, Gorges State Park and the U.S. Forest Service.
It is the second death from the top of Rainbow Falls in less than two weeks, and the sixth waterfall-related fatality in the Western Carolina mountains this year. The other deaths happened in other forest districts, Dowd said.
On June 23, John Shaffer, 42, of Charleston, South Carolina, was swept over the falls while trying to save his dog.
Dowd said there is no explanation for the recent rash of fatal falls from the top of Rainbow Falls. She said, in 2017 there were no deaths in waterfall-related accidents and the year before just one.
“It’s unfortunate,” she said. “People need to understand that nature is not a safe place.”
Windy conditions combined with weeks of prolonged heavy rainfall has increased hazards in the area state and national forests areas.
Heavy rainfall has damaged roads and assessments are ongoing. Trees on saturated soils have an increased chance of falling. High winds make falling trees even more likely. Saturated soils can also cause mudslides. Additionally, rivers and streams in the national forests are high and flowing rapidly, creating hazardous conditions. Visitors should use extra caution when recreating in the forest this summer.
Preventative measures you can take to help keep yourself safe are:
• Never climb on or around waterfalls and never play in a stream 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.
• Avoid traveling alone. If you must travel along, share your plans. Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return.
• Barriers placed at closed roads are there for your safety. Don’t move barriers — other drivers may not realize the danger. Don’t drive around barriers in the mistaken belief your vehicle can handle any situation.
• Take shelter immediately if there are high winds in the area you are visiting.
• When canoeing or kayaking, know your limits; do not attempt to navigate a section of river beyond your skill level.
Since 1995, more than a dozen people have fallen to their deaths at the many waterfalls in western North Carolina, including some in and near southern Jackson County.
“People just don’t realize how fast the water is moving,” said Todd Dillard, Director of Emergency Management for Jackson County. “They try to wade across or climb to the top, and it’s just not safe.”
According to Dillard, the hiking tourists are very adventurous. “They want to take the right picture or see them [waterfalls] as close as they can,” he said. “Some people just don’t use common sense.”
Some ignore posted warning signs and attempt wading across the river. Slick rocks along with inappropriate footwear can lead to a certain death.
However, it’s not always the adventurous types that can get hurt on the falls, sometimes accidents happen.
It is important for waterfall viewers to be aware of their surroundings at all times and to make sure they are observing the waterfall from a place that is marked safe.
Cathy Dowd, Public Affairs officer for the U.S. Forest Service in western North Carolina, said that the Forest Service works continuously to try and improve public safety at waterfalls. Last year, it built new stairs at Whitewater Falls that lead down to the observation deck. They replaced earlier stairs destroyed in a large fall 2016 wildfire that closed the falls to the public. After renovations were completed, Whitewater reopened last year.
“We want people to get that great view from a safe distance, so they are not as tempted to venture out into the river closer to the falls,” said Dowd.
Waterfall safety precautions are not only for observers, but it also helps keep rescuers safe. During the searches, rescuers are often forced to venture into dangerous water conditions, rough terrain and even into the night.
“Rescuers put their own lives on the line every time,” said Dillard.
According to U.S. Forest Service reps, the best way to observe waterfalls is from a safe distance. Always watch for warning signs that indicate danger and stay on established trails. Never climb on or around waterfalls and never play in the water above a water fall, no matter how low the water may seem.
Never jump off waterfalls or dive into their pool area at the base of the falls. Rocks and logs may be hidden beneath the surface of the water -- they are easy to hit one’s head on. Waterfalls can also often have swirling water or currents that can drag or keep one under the surface.
Dowd reminds visitors to never follow in reckless individuals’ footsteps at the falls. “Even if you have seen other people enjoy playing around waterfalls, be aware that they have been lucky to escape unharmed,” she said. “Waterfalls are constantly changing with varying water flows and erosion of the rocks around them.”
(Crossroads Chronicle Editor Don Richeson contributed to this story.)
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