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Derek NelsonDerek Nelson has been writing the Friday Funnies since 2002. He also creates the Photo of the Week feature for this website. A long-time Naval Safety Center employee, he is head of the Media Division in the Communications and Marketing Department. He is author of more than 200 freelance magazine articles and ten books about Americana and military history.

Warning? What Warning?

Posted May 16, 2012

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to get swept over a 300-foot waterfall? Imagine you are hiking up the Mist Trail in Yosemite National Park, bound for the top of the 317-foot Vernal Fall. The trail is one of Yosemite’s most popular hikes, enjoyed by a thousand people a day.

Of course, those are the ones who obey the warning signs and metal guard rails. But had you visited last summer (because what I’m describing happened then), you could have observed the three visitors (aged 22, 27 and 21) who were on a day trip to Yosemite with friends and family.

For starters, another member of their group (a man in his 40s) leaned out over the waterfall, holding his young daughter, who was crying and screaming, while a 13- or a 14-year-old took their picture. So it promised to be a fun afternoon all around.

The trio mentioned above climbed over the guard rail (which, according to a park spokesman, took "some effort") and got in the water, about 25 feet from the edge of the waterfall. They played around and took photos.

Witnesses told rangers that several people warned the three to get out of the frigid, fast-moving water. One of the victims slipped and fell. The second futilely tried to rescue that person. They clung to each other as they were swept away. The third, just as futilely, tried to save the other two. A witness said he “looked back just as he was being swept over the edge of the falls.”

I guess you can call it an accident—they were just messing around and having fun. But if you agree with one of the definitions in my handy dictionary (“Law an unforeseen event that occurs without anyone’s fault or negligence”), you’ll also agree that this was hardly an accident. It had been foreseen—according to park records, nine others had fatally plunged over that waterfall. Fault and negligence abounded.

I definitely read my share of cringe-worthy accounts of terrible accidents, but this one stuck in my mind (multiply this by ten for all the people who were there in person). What would it feel like when your feet first slip and the water takes control? How quickly does 25 feet go by? Does the thought of a 300-foot plummet amp up the fear, or does your final minute become just a cold, bright, wet, noisy blur?

Why do people ignore clear, specific rules and guidance? Why do they persist in thinking, “It’s never going to happen to me.” Do they really think warnings are just for the timid and weak?

This past year was one of the worst tornado seasons in American history. Weather alerts—those little bright-red crawlers along the bottom of the television, sometimes accompanied by annoying honks—became inescapable in some parts of the country. Although here in Norfolk we usually have to worry only about hurricanes, a few thunderstorms even threatened us. I remember looking at my wife and asking, “Did the television really just tell us to get into a closet?”

Nevertheless, some people made it worse for themselves. “Even with TVs, radios and the Internet running alerts, some people headed upstairs to get a better view of the coming menace,” a newspaper article said, paraphrasing comments from Mike Smith, author of a book about weather warnings.

Every year when a bad hurricane roars up the coast and most people are either evacuating or bat¬tening down the hatches, some foolhardy souls head out to the oceanfront to look for a hotel room and a hurricane party.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to get swept out to sea during a hurricane?

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Last reviewed: 27 February 2014

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