Dramatic Rescue of 40 People in State Park Ends in Tragedy

July 06, 2017Jul 06, 2017

For 40 people, Wednesday was a day of enjoying the incredible natural beauty of Cummins Falls State Park in Middle Tennessee. But then everything started going wrong.

As recreationists explored the popular Cummins Falls and gorge surrounding it Wednesday afternoon, the Blackburn Fork State Scenic River suddenly turned into a raging torrent, swamping a group enjoying the swimming hole below the falls. People struggled to get to higher ground, making it to the sides of the gorge while three people found themselves trapped on a tiny islands, according to The Tennessean.

The water rose three feet in three minutes, according to WKRN, trapping another 27 people behind the waterfall. 10 more people became trapped downstream as the flash flood blocked their routes of escape.

Severe storms upstream had caused the flooding, and the only warning the people in the gorge had of the impending torrent was an abrupt changing of the water color to a soupy brown.

Emergency crews rushed to the rescue, using a helicopter to save some people while tossing ropes to others to pull them out of the steep-sided river gorge. At one point, one man went under the water, but another man was able to pull him out. Only minor injuries have been reported.

"If he [Tennessee Highway Patrol helicopter] hadn't been in the area, if he hadn't got those first six out of the first nine that we got out, we'd definitely have a different story,” expressed Jackson County EMA Director Keith Bean, according to News Channel 5.

After two hours, 39 people had been rescued. But as the sun went down, one 73-year-old woman, who has not been identified, remained missing after being swept away. Crews searched all day Thursday and started again on Friday but are not counting on finding her alive.

On Friday morning, though, The Tennessean reported that search teams had found the body of a woman downstream from the falls. The body was not that of the 73-year-old, though, but a 45-year-old woman they've identified as Lisa Michelle Hillian of Sale Creek, Tenn. Rescuers in kayaks found the Hillian while searching for the elderly woman and have not said yet if she was part of the group caught in the flash flood at the falls on Wednesday.

As for the 73-year-old woman, Bean said, "We will find her. It will take us a while, but we will find her."

Helicopters and drones, as well as people walking along the shore of the now-diminished river, are being used in the recovery effort.

Please pray for the families of these two victims!