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Cummins Falls to reopen despite being described as "inherently dangerous"

WSMV Nashville logo WSMV Nashville 8/13/2019
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COOKEVILLE, TN (WSMV) - A new comprehensive safety plan has been announced that will change how Cummins Falls State Park will operate after a young boy was swept away at the falls and died.

The falls have been closed to the public since the incident but will reopen on Wednesday, Aug. 14 weather-permitting. Weather will play a key factor in the new safety plan, the park will only operate during fair weather conditions.

TDEC: falls will never be totally safe. Working towards doing a “fair weather” only opening. pic.twitter.com/EMWbquJE6M— Jeremy Finley (@JFinleyreports) August 13, 2019

The new safety plan calls for new policies regarding minor children at the falls and gorge. Each child 12 and under will now have to be accompanied by an adult, wear a life jacket, and must wear a life jacket while swimming.

The additions will also include additional signage, additional safety-related information on the park's website, real-time weather monitoring, water monitoring, a safety education video for public viewing at the park at a temporary visitor center, and refuge area in case of evacuation. There will also be increased personnel on site.

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UP NEXT

Breaking: TDEC confirms park opens tomorrow but only during fair weather. Press release here. pic.twitter.com/udkgnDor6g— Jeremy Finley (@JFinleyreports) August 13, 2019

TDEC: details in press release about evacuations when falls opens tomorrow pic.twitter.com/inHiM5nb3M— Jeremy Finley (@JFinleyreports) August 13, 2019

At the announcement of the reopening, TDEC deputy commissioner Jim Bryson described the park has "inherently dangerous."

"This is an inherently dangerous place. We are doing everything we can do to reduce the risk," Bryson said.

The reopening comes as the state is being sued by the family of two-year-old Steven Pierce, who drowned on June 9.

The family's attorney told News4 Investigates that Steven was wearing a park-provided floatie, but that the state required all life jackets and floaties be left at the bottom of the falls and not worn out of the park.

The family said that policy meant as Steven's father tried to cross the flood water carrying Steven, the boy was wearing nothing to keep him afloat.

News4 Investigates asked Bryson if that policy was a mistake.

"Going forward, We're going to make sure that children twelve and under are required to have a life jacket," Bryson responded.

"But the question was: was that a mistake before to not allow those people to wear those life jackets across the water," News4 Investigates asked.

"I hear that's the question, but that's not the answer I'm going to give you," Bryson said.

Steven Pierce is the third person to drown at the park since 2017.

News4 Investigates first uncovered emails that showed after the drowning death of two women in 2017, a flood warning system began to be developed within TDEC.

But by the next year, that plan quietly died in bureaucracy, mired among questions if multiple bids should be taken for the job.

The emails show TDEC's commissioner and other agency leaders knew that the flood warning system wasn't in place, yet the public was still allowed into the park even after heavy rains.

It was only after Pierce drowned that the park was temporarily closed.

News4 Investigates also asked Bryson if the state made mistakes in allowing the park to remain open without a flood warning plan in place.

"I don't want to look back. The point is what are we doing going forward," Bryson said.

"I understand that you wouldn't want to look back. But people drowned. And I think that's the question: were mistakes made?" asked News4 Investigates.

"Jeremy, you need to look back at what was already said, and we'll move forward from here," Bryson said.

Bryson has only been the deputy commissioner for three months, and our review of the internal emails do not show he had any knowledge of the absent flood warning system before Pierce's drowning.

However, commission David Salyers told lawmakers in a hearing in June that he was upset to learn that the system wasn't in place.

Emails show Salyers asked for updates on the status of the flood warning system shortly before Pierce drowned.

However, there are no emails to show that Salyers wanted to close the park prior to Pierce's drowning, despite his knowledge that the flood warning system hadn't been implemented.

Salyers was not at the announcement of the reopening of the park.

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