Poised at the top of Glen Onoko Falls, hikers drink in a panoramic view of Lehigh Gorge. But all it takes is a fraction of a second, one step onto a slick, moss-covered rock, for the serene beauty to reveal its treachery.
That's what happened Monday, when 20-year-old Jesse Michael Crossley of Catasauqua fell about 40 feet to his death from the second falls, the same area from which 31-year-old Perla Cabral of New York met a similar fate on Aug. 10, 2013.
Crossley, clad in a bathing suit and sneakers, was hiking with friends. He was off the trail and apparently lost his footing and plummeted onto sharp rocks, said Carbon County Coroner Bruce Nalesnik, who pronounced him dead at 2:23 p.m.
Although Nalesnik said Crossley's death appears to be accidental, an autopsy was to be performed at 8 o'clock this morning at Lehigh Valley Hospital, Salisbury Township.
The falls, on state game lands at the edge of Lehigh Gorge State Park, offers a challenging hike that is rewarded by a spectacular view.
Despite a sign at the base of the falls that warns of the dangers "Hikers have been seriously injured and killed as a result of accidental falls from the trail and gorge overlooks" several people have plunged to their deaths, according to newspaper accounts. No agency keeps records of deaths or injuries at the falls.
The death toll includes Mark E. Kreiger, 17, of Lehighton, who died in 1977; David R. Carlyon, 23, and his nephew, Ian Russell, 3, of Montgomery County, 1983; Douglas George, 25, of Allentown, also 1983; Patrick Phraner, 22, of New Jersey, 1990; Jonathan Eubert, 17, of Schuylkill Haven, 1996; and Daniel R. Ziegler, 26, of Lehighton, 1997.
In addition to the deaths, there have been numerous injuries over the years.
Glen Onoko Falls are reached by hiking a trail through Lehigh Gorge State Park. David Madl manages the park and has seen his share of tragedies at the falls.
"People want to get out a little farther to see the view and hit that slippery rock. The rocks are slippery with algae," he said. "People get close to where the rocks are slippery, and gravity does the rest. It doesn't take much."
Madl mentioned the warning sign at the foot of the falls, a sign too many people ignore.
"They need to be prepared. be extra cautious of every step they take. When you're hiking, try to have three points of contact with the ground at all times. Stay away from the edges of the ledges and right near the falls. Make sure you are alert when you're hiking in that terrain. Do not hike under the influence of anything, and be cognizant of your environment. There are a lot of loose rocks that could cause a problem," Madl said.
Experienced outdoorsman Doug Fogal, who with his brother Paul owns Pocono Whitewater rafting, reminds people to "respect the risks."
"Waterfalls are inherently in steep terrain, and wet with slippery rocks. Wear good footwear, with a good grip sole, not sandals," he said. "If you slip and fall, you probably are not going to stop immediately because you are not on flat ground."
Too many accidents are caused by poorly thought-out behaviors, he said. He offers as examples hiking at night, under the influence, or in sandals, flip-flops or other inappropriate footwear.
Most accidental falls happen not on the climb up, but on the way down, he said.
"When going up, you can lean on your hands and see where your feet are going to go. You are pitched toward slope. But coming down, it's harder to see where you are going to put your feet. Also, you have a tendency to slide forward, and you don't have as much use of your hands," he said.
Fogal recommends that hikers who climb the falls to the top follow the trail over to the right, or east, and come down the stepped trail.
"You're going down a more gradual walking trail. Not only is it safer, it gives you a loop walk, so you can have a well-rounded appreciation of the area's natural beauty," he said.
Fogal advises hikers to keep to the trail, not only for their own safety, but to protect the environment.
While the falls are beautiful, they require a hiker's complete attention.
"Even experienced hikers have had some serious injuries, and local volunteers put their health and safety at risk to try and rescue these folks," Fogal said.
A rescuer's perspective
Carbon County Commissioner and longtime volunteer firefighter Wayne Nothstein has been on more than a few rescues at the falls. He was there Monday after Crossley fell.
"It takes a lot of manpower because of the terrain. It's a good hike to get up there. It's grueling for the rescuer until they get up there. You have to go over rocks and a stream, it takes a lot of manpower to pass the Stokes basket containing the victim. You have to hook it to ropes to lower it at some places, and set up additional rigging for rescuers to hang onto," he said.
In addition, volunteer first responders must be trained in how to set up rigging to lower the basket. Rescuers often work in relays to get the victim down while conserving their own energy.
"I usually get up there two or three times a year on rescues," Nothstein said. "It takes a lot of manpower, and a lot of coordination."
That's especially true on weekdays, when the volunteer pool is low because people are at work.
"There were at least five departments involved on Monday. They dispatch multiple departments to get enough manpower to perform the rescue," he said.
Should the falls be made safer?
When accidents happen, people sometimes wonder if the state should take steps to make the area safer, perhaps by installing railings.
It's an argument Nothstein has heard many times.
"Making it safer would be very difficult and expensive. I don't think the state would ever do it," he said. "This is the way nature is. People just don't realize the dangers."
On Monday, Nothstein was at an area where hikers were being turned away from the rescue site. Some, he said, wore sandals.
State Game Commission land management supervisor Peter Sussenbach is familiar with Glen Onoko, and has hiked there.
"We have a sign there, people are responsible for their own safety, and they should wear appropriate footwear. There are places all over the state that are remote, treacherous, slippery and potentially can cause a dangerous situation to occur," he said.
"(Glen Onoko) is one of those places where you don't get close to the edge, and you wear appropriate footwear. If you do those things, you should be able to keep yourself pretty safe," Sussenbach said.
So, does the state plan to install railings or other safety features?
"Not at this time. But we are always in the evaluation stage," he said. "But where do we stop? Do we fence in every place?"
Sussenbach said he visited the Grand Canyon last summer, and there are no safety railings there.
"At some point, we have to stress that common sense prevails," he said.