UNICOI, Tenn. (WJHL) — After a man fell to his death at Red Fork Falls, a Johnson City woman who lost her nephew in a similar incident 35 years ago says something has to be done to prevent one more person from dying there.
It took 20 people from eight different crews to recover the man’s body on Sunday. The victim was described as a man in his mid-30s. He was hiking with a group when he fell.
Cindy Young, who some may know as the director of community outreach at Johnson City’s Coalition for Kids, was hiking with her nephew, Greg Willett, and other family members back in 1987.
Young said the group went to the upper edge of the falls, where Willett lost his footing and plunged to his death.
“He had stepped on one of the mossy rocks and was going down feet first off the cliff,” Young said. “It’s beautiful, but it is a deathtrap because all it takes is a single slip.”
Willett was 21 years old and left behind a fiancee.
After the death of another hiker at Red Fork Falls, Young is calling for the area to be closed to the public.
“I want to petition either the city or the federal government to close those falls,” Young said. “I hope to get the attention of the U.S. Forest Service so that we can get together with them and see what can be done.”
The falls sit on Forest Service public land on Unaka Mountain in Unicoi County. The trail is not recognized by the service because they do not meet federal standards for trails. Because of this, the Forest Service recommends against going on the trail because of the slick surfaces, substantial drops, difficult terrain and lack of trail markings.
Leslie Morgan, a ranger for the Unaka District of the Cherokee National Forest, said death and serious injuries at the falls are not uncommon.
“Almost every single year we have at least one serious head injury, if not broken ankle, broken arm, broken leg,” Morgan said.
Morgan said she has now seen two deaths at the trail in her eight years at that post. But because the trail is on public land, it is difficult to prevent people from going on it.
“It’s not illegal [to go to Red Fork Falls ]because anybody can walk across the woods,” Morgan said.
Morgan said it is a user-created trail, meaning it was forged by someone not with the Forest Service.
Additionally, attempts to dissuade hikers from descending to the falls have proven fruitless.
“We have made attempts to sign the area as being very dangerous,” Morgan said. “The signs get torn off and thrown away.”
There is a small pull-off area by the trail entrance. Morgan suggested putting boulders there to stop people from parking there, but said that probably wouldn’t work either.
“Chances are they’re just going to park somewhere else and walk from somewhere else,” Morgan said.
Additionally, Morgan’s district consists largely of volunteer workers. She said they lack the staffing to prevent people from going there.
“We don’t have the staffing to stand there and patrol that seven days a week,” Morgan said.
Morgan said bringing attention to the danger of the falls could also have a reverse effect by enticing thrill-seekers to the area.
She said anyone thinking about attempting the hike needs to consider the immense risk to themselves and to rescuers should something go wrong.
“People really need to think about that before they put other people in these situations that have to go in there and rescue them,” Morgan said.
The recovery of the hiker on Sunday took about four hours because of the dangerous terrain.
Regardless of those factors, Young wants to see action.
“Something has to be done and we’ve got to get people’s attention so that measures can be put into place,” Young said.
Young said she wants to reach out to families of other trail victims to continue her push to get the area closed.