- Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2015

LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) - “Danger!” read multiple signs posted along the 2.7-mile-long trail next to Crabtree Falls.

Curtis Sheets, chief of Wintergreen Fire and Rescue, said he has never seen a more clearly marked trail.

But visitors still disregard the signs, oftentimes with tragic results - a fact that concerns the rescue teams that respond to such incidents and the community at large.

At least 30 people have died at Crabtree Falls in Nelson County since the U.S. Forest Service began tracking the incidents in 1982. The most recent victim was Daniel Wayne Kistner, 31, of Chesapeake, who fell to his death on Aug. 29.

In June, Franklin Miguel Madrana Guevara, 20, died after tumbling more than 75 feet. Guevara, who lived in Annandale but was in the United States on a visa from El Salvador, was visiting the site with a church group.

In April 2013, Liberty University student Faith Helbig, 18, fell after her foot slipped on a rock. Kistner, Helbig and Guevara all crossed safety barriers, authorities have said.

While the rocks sticking out of the water offer spectacular views, most are covered with clear, slippery algae that can be treacherous to walk on. The five cascades plummet a total of 1,200 feet, according to the Forest Service’s website.

Sheets said he thinks a “game changer” in recent years that has contributed to accidents is the prevalence of smartphones with built-in cameras, allowing anyone to take a great shot of the falls.

“It used to be a lot of people didn’t have a way to take a picture unless they had a decent camera,” Sheets said. “Now everyone has a great camera, and they want that selfie to put on Facebook.”

Sheets said the Wintergreen rescue team will go for years without an incident, and other years will have several. All of the deaths he can recall have been from people visiting from “outside of the local area.”

“It just so happened we had a couple (of deaths) here recently, and it’s made people take notice,” he said. “I don’t want to be disrespectful, but at the same time, if you stay on the trail, you will return to your family.”

Wintergreen Fire and Rescue has a special ropes team that is trained to undertake rescue missions that require extra safety, whether at Crabtree Falls or other rock features where rescuers have to be prepared for anything.

“We do always go on rope,” Sheets said. “We don’t want to take anything for granted and become victims ourselves.”

Arrington resident Jennifer Crowder, who said she has hiked the falls all her life without an incident, said her heart goes out to the victims’ families.

“People need to have respect for nature,” she said. “. When you go there, it’s so beautiful but there are dangers lurking everywhere. If you respect it and follow the rules and stay within the guidelines of the trail, it’s not an issue.”

“Danger! Multiple fatalities have occurred here because people got off this trail and climbed onto the rocks. The rocks are extremely slippery due to a clear algae,” one sign reads.

“Danger! Young men and women between 18 and 25 years of age who are bright, intelligent and educated fit the profile of the victims of the siren of Crabtree Falls,” another sign says.

“I don’t know how you could sign it or mark it better,” Sheets said. “You could do a prison fence and that’s really unfortunate.”

Nelson County Supervisor Tommy Harvey, also chief of the Rockfish Valley Volunteers Fire and Rescue Department, said there once were no signs or barriers at the falls, and he doesn’t understand why people cross the barriers that now are in place.

“You can get the same picture looking from the bottom to the top as you can from the top to the bottom,” he said. “Go to the bottom if you want to get that shot. These rocks . they get that moss on them and when water gets on there, it’s non-forgiving. Once you start . it’s a nasty fall.”

Crowder said she is concerned the deaths will prompt authorities to eventually place more barricades on the path, which she said would take away from the natural beauty of the falls.

“That would be the worst thing ever,” she said. “It takes away from the reason people go, and it’s destroying nature. It breaks my heart. There are rules for a reason, and people are losing their lives.”

Crowder remembers taking school field trips to the falls. She also has taken her children there several times.

“We still make the trip numerous times during the year to go up there,” she said. “It’s free and beautiful, it’s the best entertainment ever and it’s good exercise. Maybe this death will be an eye opener for people - it’ll give people a reason to stop and think.”

Harvey said he doesn’t know what else can be done to prevent another tragedy.

“You’ve got signs saying not to go over it and it will kill you,” he said. “There are barriers where you shouldn’t go. If you can’t play by the rules, it’s an unsafe area - but they have made it safe, provided you follow the rules.”

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Information from: Nelson County Times.

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