Search continues for elderly woman swept away by rising water at Cummins Falls

(Photo: WKRN)

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JACKSON COUNTY, Tenn. (WKRN) – The search for the 73-year old woman, swept away from high rising water at Cummins Falls Wednesday, continues.

The popular park is only five years old, and the locals are gathering at a nearby country store while rescues are searching.

Rita Barlow and her family opened the Old Mill Camp and General Store less than six weeks ago, and already they’ve had more excitement than they bargained for.

“We hadn’t been at the store a half of hour or so and we saw the emergency vehicles coming in,” Barlow said.

Wednesday the water at the falls rose quickly trapping nearly 40 swimmers. News 2 has learned the son of Gibson County Sheriff Paul Thomas was one of the victims who was rescued.

Many of those gathered at Barlow’s business.

Photo: WKRN

“Some of the people that stopped in got out of the water pretty rapidly – one gentleman said his daughters waded out in ankle deep water and he got his phone out to take a picture, and by the time he the picture taken it was up to their knees,” the general store owner said.

Friday the recovery efforts for the missing woman continued despite the higher than normal waters.

It’s been an emotional time.

“It touches your heart strings for sure,” Barlow said. “I mean you know – I’m sure she, some people have said you why would a woman of that age be there but you know there are healthy 73 year olds and I know I’m not too far from that age myself and if my family were going out to enjoy the day I would want to go out and be with them.”

Barlow said park rangers do a good job of keeping people out of the water if it’s too dangerous.

“They are so conscience and I believe if they inkling that there was any danger they would have closed,” she said. “They don’t hesitate normally to post no swimming signs. They do that on days far less water than yesterday. So it was just a freak thing of nature that so much water was dumped and landed here at that time.”

Barlow is hoping search crews find the woman soon, so her family can begin the healing process.

“It’s just very sad,” Barlow said. “I can’t image going down with my family and coming back without one of them.”

WARNING SIGNS

Many are wondering if any warning signs or no swimming signs were put up before the water at Cummins Fall State Park rose quickly Wednesday.

Authorities told News 2 not a drop of rain fell at Cummins Falls, but in nearby Putnam County it did, and water from several overflowing creeks drained into the Falls, trapping nearly 40 people.

News 2 spoke with the chief state park ranger who said training paid off and saved a lot of lives since they had recently practice this very water rescue scenario.

He said there wasn’t any concern about the water level at Cummins Falls Wednesday.

“Our rangers evaluate the water level every morning and there was nothing there conditions all look good,” said Tennessee Chief State Park Ranger Shane Petty.

Petty said there was no need to put up no swimming signs.

“It was just a beautiful day. The water was at local level and it’s just something I talked to the locals and they’ve never seen anything like that happen before,” Petty said.

Within minutes, the water rose and rose quickly, trapping the swimmers.

Nine people were not able to get out of the water in time and a Tennessee Highway Patrol helicopter helped rescue them.

Later in the day, three other people were rescued by another aircraft.

“This is a tragic situation, but we are extremely blessed of the heroic actions of a lot of officers from state parks and the highway patrol, and aviation unit have save so many lives,” Petty said.

Petty said in his 28 years of doing water rescues this is the worse he has seen.

“2010 floods maybe something close, but never seen anything like this,” Petty said.

Searchers want to find the woman soon so the family can have closure.

“It’s somebody’s mom, daughter, sister, it’s a family member and we all got kids, wives and moms and so that’s what motivates us and keeps up there from morning to dark,” Petty said.