Man waited until Flume subsided, but it was still too much

Police: No alcohol or drugs involved in drowning

People swim and, at left, prepare to jump from cliffs at the Flume in Wilmington in July 2011. (Enterprise photo — Richard Rosentreter)

A man who drowned July 3 at the Flume in Wilmington had decided not to jump into the waterfall each of the two days prior because the water level was too high.

That’s according to state police Investigator Liane Colby, who looked into the death of Matthew Miller, 31, of Ithaca.

Colby said Miller and his fiancee camped that weekend at the Wilmington Notch Campground in Wilmington, run by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and hiked a mountain with friends the morning before he died at the Flume. On previous trips to the area, Miller had jumped off the Flume’s cliffs into the churning water below the waterfall on the West Branch of the Au-Sable River, Colby added.

“They had looked at the water Saturday and Sunday, and said no, the water there’s rushing too fast,” Colby said. “And for whatever reason, they decided to jump that day.”

No alcohol or drugs were involved, Colby added.

Miller’s fiancee and many other Flume visitors witnessed him jump from a cliff and not resurface that Monday afternoon, Colby said. Rescuers spent almost 24 hours searching before they retrieved his body on July 4.

This June was one of the wettest on record, according to the National Weather Service, and weeks of rain resulted in high water levels throughout the AuSable watershed. The U.S. Geological Survey water gauge on the river in AuSable Forks, several miles downstream from the Flume, showed a huge spike in flow on Friday, June 30, to more than 10,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). By July 3, when Miller died, it was down to around 4,000 cfs, but that’s still more than 10 times normal. The median flow rate for the AuSable River, based on 85 years of data, is somewhere in the mid-300 cfs for the month of June. On Thursday, it was around 650 cfs.

Essex County Coroner Frank Whitelaw said at the time of Miller’s death that the increased aerated nature of the water Miller jumped into would make it very difficult for anyone to successfully swim back to surface when the whitewater forced him downward. The coroner said the body was found near the center of the river, about 15 yards from where Miller jumped in at a location where the water was approximately 8 feet deep at the time of the retrieval. It’s the exact same spot where two Plattsburgh High School students died in the same way in 2014.

A woman who was also swimming at the spot around the time Miller died also struggled in the dangerous waters but was able to get out of the river safely, according to state police.

The latest death has prompted debate over what, if anything, should be done at the Flume to prevent more deaths. An unscientific Enterprise web poll on whether swimming should be prohibited there resulted in a near-deadlock, with 258 “no” votes, 256 “yes” votes and 28 undecided. People vigorously argued both sides of the debate on the Enterprise Facebook page.

Some, including Enterprise editorial writers, have suggested posting warning signs at the Flume, but many Wilmington residents don’t think that would solve the problem.

“While it is a tragedy and our hearts go out the family, personal responsibility must come into play,” town Supervisor Randy Preston said. “If you put up a sign everywhere in the Adirondacks that could be dangerous, then there would be 1 million signs. … The sign, and you would need 1 million of them, would say, ‘THINK.’ I have been in the Wilmington Fire Department for 40 years, and we have responded to dozens of calls to the Flume, many fatal, many not. In all cases, bad decisions were made, high water, too close to the edge, alcohol- and drug-induced activities which resulted in taking serious risks.”

Wilmington resident Diane Kirby agrees.

“Ultimately, I don’t think people would pay attention to a sign,” she said. “The people who need to pay attention to a sign don’t pay attention to it.”

Kirby speaks as someone who voluntarily goes to the Flume at least three mornings a week to pick up garbage, which visitors leave there in vast quantities. The morning of the day Miller died, around 9:30 a.m., she said she saw a group of people camping on the riverside right next to a “no camping” sign, with seven tents and multiple bags full of beer cans.

“I realize it is an attractive nuissance, but I’d hate to see it roped off,” she said of the Flume. “It’s just beautiful.”

The year the high schoolers died, Kirby said, the river only ran at that high level for a short period of time, but this year it keeps going.

“Holy smokes, that river is raging this year,” she said.

She said there seem to be fewer people at the Flume since Miller died. On Tuesday morning she found only one beer can, “so I feel like that was a big win-win.”

Staff Writer Antonio Olivero contributed to this report.