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Tennessee State Park Called 'Really Dangerous'

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Posted at 6:20 PM, Jul 20, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-07 14:17:16-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It has quickly become one of Tennessee's most popular state parks.

Cummins Falls opened to the public three years ago. But, after three deaths and dozens of injuries, local officials have been overwhelmed and asking the state for help.

The popular swimming hole, located north of Cookeville, sits beneath a beautiful 75-foot waterfall. The park has been ranked online as one of the best swimming holes in North America, and it is wildly popular on social media.

But Jackson County's emergency management director, Keith Bean, knows another side to the park.

"I want people to know it's dangerous. It's a beautiful place, great to swim, but it's really dangerous," Bean said.

When someone gets hurt at the park Jackson County receives the emergency call.

The county's ambulance service has responded to numerous injuries and three drownings since the park opened.

Two 13 year olds on a field trip with the Nashville non-profit Backfield in Motion drowned at the park last year.

And just last month a 22 year old drowned.

"I think now we've come to the point where we've got to do something about this," Bean said

The nearly 100 injury-related ambulance calls have put a serious strain on the county.

"One thing I'd like to see is more rangers out there," Bean said.

Currently, the state has only two rangers at the park.

That's all that was budgeted when Cummins Falls opened.

Park Manager Ray Cutcher is one of the rangers there full time.

"What is surprising is the number of people visiting us," Cutcher said. "It has kind of skyrocketed."

Cutcher is aware of the county's concerns and said they are having meetings to discuss safety.

"I don't know what's going to come out of our meetings and what the strategy is going to be going forward," Cutcher said.

But Jackson County officials believe one strategy should be a faster way to get injured people out of the park.

Currently, the fastest way out of the swimming hole is up a steep, rocky incline.

Francios Moolman, 18, was carried out of the park on a stretcher earlier this summer after he slipped on a rock and hit his head.

"Everybody told me blood was coming out like crazy," Moolman said.

He was worried he might be paralyzed.

"I have so much respect and gratefulness for all the people that were there to help me. I can't thank them enough," Moolman said.

Pictures show how Jackson County EMTs, park employees and more than a dozen bystanders carried Moolman up the rocky incline to safety.

"All I can do is look up and see everybody's face looking down like struggling to carry me up there, and I feel so bad," Moolman remembered.

The only other way out is a nearly one-mile hike.

Every time someone gets injured, emergency workers ask park visitors to help carry the stretcher.

"That's the big thing because I don't know that we could do it by ourselves," Bean said.

Bean said every rescue takes at least two hours and 20 volunteers.

He is urging the state to make it easier to get people to safety.

"Some stuff could have been done before it was opened, but I understand the finances weren't there," Bean said.

But now with huge numbers of visitors and disturbing numbers of injuries, Bean wants the state to act.

"They need some funding to make it safer for them and to be able to cover it more adequately," Bean said.

Here is the full statement from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation after we asked about safety at Cummins Falls:

"The safety of our park visitors is our number one concern. Tennessee State Parks is reviewing this year’s incidents at Cummins, as well as other parks, to determine specific options and best practices to reduce or eliminate the number of incidents involving injuries, as well as the rescue procedures. At this point, discussions involve shifting resources from other parks, including rangers, to assist. Any help you can give us with educating the public on the danger of hiking in/out of the gorge would be wonderful. We have signage in the works, changes to the website being made, life jackets at the gorge by the swimming hole, adjusted park hours, potential studies on carrying capacity and in the process of surveying park visitors."