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News 13 Investigates: Protecting against waterfall deaths

Rainbow Falls and Turtleback Falls are some of the more dangerous falls in our area. 

Millions of people travel to Western North Carolina every year to enjoy the picturesque waterfalls.

But each year, some of those visits turn into tragedies.

Now one local family is demanding more precautions at the falls.

A FATHER LOST

Jacques Downing was 39 years old when he took his last jump off Elk River Falls.

He died on July 16, 2016, before he ever got to meet his son Chase.

"He's perfect, he couldn't be more perfect, he's so much like his dad," Jacques' girlfriend, Amanda Winebarger, said.

Winebarger said Chase looks and acts just like his father.

"Every day I get to wake up and look at his little face and it's just like his dad, ears and all he's just like his dad," Winebarger said.

His brother, Jesse Downing, misses Jacques every day.

"He has a light inside of him that was just different than everybody, and I remember when I was young I just looked up to him so much," Jesse Downing said.

Jesse is a volunteer firefighter and responds to calls at Elk River Falls. He warned his brother not to jump there. But Jacques had done it many times before and thought he had it perfected. But on July 16, he never resurfaced.

Jesse's actually responded to the call, unable to believe that this time the victim was his older brother.

"Got my gear on and proceeded to treat the call as if it was a regular call," Jesse recalled. "There were some rescue and search guys who tried to get me off the trail, but that wasn't going to happen. There's no way I'm going to not be there for my brother."

Downing's body was found two days later, 43 feet underwater.

His memorial at the top of the falls is now a reminder to others that the danger is not worth the adventure.

But his family says that's not enough, and hopes some sort of barricade will be put here to block those jumping.

"We should try. We should do something. We can't just say no anymore, you're endangering so many lives," Jesse Downing said.

DEADLY WATERFALL ACCIDENTS

It's a danger lurking in many of the gorgeous waterfalls throughout the mountains.

News 13 checked in with the state and federal parks and forests in our area, and searched our archives. We found dozens of waterfall deaths over the past decade.

Last year, there were eight, and so far this year, there have been four.

News 13 crews rode along with a local park superintendent and fire chief, then hiked in to some of the waterfalls that have seen the most tragedies.

"There has been 10 fatalities on Horsepasture River in general, several of them right here," said Steve Pagano with North Carolina State Parks.

News 13 wanted to see firsthand the dangers at places like Rainbow and Turtleback Falls and the safety measures, as well. We saw new signs had been posted, clearly warning that deadly accidents have happened here. Park rangers said they believe they are working to remind people to stay on the trail.

PROTECTIONS AT FALLS

Jonathan Griffith is the park superintendent at South Mountains State Park. We hiked with him up to High Shoals Falls, where three people have died.

"The rocks are extremely slippery, and there are no hand holds, so once you're in it, you're in it and you're going over," Griffith said.

He said some people simply ignore the protections in place.

"The time we have waterfall accidents is when people disregard those signs," Griffith said. "They crawl over the barricades at the top of the waterfall."

In addition to the signs, parks are also now handing out waterfall safety cards.

"We want to make sure everyone understands that these are real dangers, and that real tragedies can occur," said Jeff Owenby with Pisgah National Forest.

But authorities say there is nothing they can do when people chose to ignore the warnings.

The Lake Toxaway Fire Department responds to a lot of waterfall accidents. They said each response comes at a high price when you add up the expensive equipment and manpower needed.

"You'll end up with $3,000 at a minimum, and it will go up from there," said Terry Crow with Lake Toxaway Rescue.

There's also a risk to the first-responders themselves.

Jacques' family hopes their warning of a little boy now forced to grow up without a father, finally starts saving lives.

"There comes a point when your luck runs out, and it's not worth leaving your family behind. It's just not worth it," Winebarger said.

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