Three Students Die in Cornell University Gorges

PHOTO In the last month, three male students have leapt or fallen from bridges that span the gorges, some of which plunge 200-feet deep. One death was ruled a suicide and two others are still being investigated.

The breathtaking gorges that cross-cross Cornell University's Ithaca, N.Y., campus are a large part of why students are drawn to this Ivy-League school -- but they also have a dark side.

In the last month, three students have leapt or fallen from bridges -- a phenomenon known as "gorging," some plunging 200 feet deep. One death was ruled a suicide and two others are still being investigated.

"This is the most beautiful part of Cornell and what it is known for, essentially waterfalls flowing through carved rock," said Sarah Guilbert, 20, and a nutritional science major from Hightstown, N.J. "I think it's terrible that it's associated with tragedy.

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"We walk over the bridges two to three times almost every day," she said. "When we want to get into town, you go over one of them, and the other one where someone jumped near one of the sororities."

The first body, a freshman, was found Feb. 17 in Fall Creek Gorge, according to the student newspaper, The Cornell Daily Sun. Cornell officials said the young man's death was ruled a suicide.

Then last week, two more bodies were found in the same gorge. The first, a sophomore, was found March 11 under the Thurston Avenue Bridge. The next day, a junior was found near the suspension bridge at the same gorge.

Video: Teens use local train tracks to commit suicide.
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In this academic year alone, 10 students have died from a variety of causes: suicide, accidents and cancer.

"Multiple tragedies have affected this campus in a short amount of time," said Timothy Marchell, who is director of Cornell's mental health initiatives.

"It all takes a toll," he said. "You always know with a population of 20,000 every year you will lose some of our students to suicide or accidents. But these numbers have been out of proportion."

With mid-term exams approaching and spring break starting Saturday, faculty and students have been shaken by the deaths.

A Facebook group was established, calling for "No More Cornell Suicides." The Sun reported that signs saying, "Smile," and "Your prelim grade isn't as bad as being mauled by a bear," appeared on bridge railings.

Security personnel have been placed at the three bridges, student resident assistants have gone door-to-door, knocking on dorm rooms to offer consolation, and the mental health center is waging a multi-media education and prevention campaign.

"We want to create a sense of reassurance for all members of the community, those who are vulnerable and those who are traumatized from taking serious risks," Marchell said.

Counseling Services Offered

"Loss of life is palpable here," vice president for student and academic services Susan Murphy said in a video posted on a new campus Web site, Caring Community, which offers mental health resources.

Counseling services were expanded to the weekend.

"We know our gorges … can be scary places at times like these," she said.

Accidents are not uncommon. Students jump into the water in the summer, according to Guilbert. In fact, a classmate from her high school, 23-year-old Keith O'Donnell, died of head injuries in a fall at Cascadilla Gorge in 2007.

Cornell officials said there was another accidental drowning in the gorge in 2008, but the last suicide there was in 2001.

The university said it averages one to two student suicide deaths a year, but most are not in the gorge.

"The incidence of suicides, even though each one is tragic, is relatively small numerically," said Marchell. "We see ups and downs each year."

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