The bodies of Dwight F. Cope, 42, and Dagan Cope, 15, were recovered from the mountainous site adjacent to the Appalachian Trail. Carter County Sheriff Chris Mathes said both victims have been sent to the Quillen College of Medicine for autopsies. Although it appears they drowned in the pool below the falls, Mathes said the deaths are treated as a homicides until the autopsy results have been received.
Mathes said the father and son had been hiking on the Appalachian Trail for 13 days and approached the falls from the south when they reached the 30-foot waterfall in the Pond Mountain Wilderness Area.
“We know where they had been because they kept detailed logs,” Mathes said.
The father and son apparently decided to take a swim. Their hiking gear and personal possessions were stacked near the edge of the pool.
Lt. Patrick Johnson of sheriff’s department said the pool is very deep at both ends of the falls and there is a shelf underneath the falls. There is also a strong current that can pull a body under the shelf and keep it pinned there for hours.
Lt. Mike Little said emergency personnel were first alerted to a drowning at the falls at 9 a.m. Wednesday when a hiker reported seeing a body floating in the pool. It was the body of Dwight Cope.
The rescue squad’s Technical Rescue Team was mobilized and went in to recover the body. Approximately 13 team members responded. It took the strength of all the members to carry the body up the steep cliff, made more difficult by the summer heat and the piles of boulders along the path.
Although only one body was recovered, Little said there was strong suspicion that Dagan Cope’s body was also in the pool and still being held down by the current. He said that suspicion was the result of finding the back packs and identification of both at the scene.
On Thursday morning, Rescue Squad Director Terry Arnold flew over the site in a helicopter provided by Wings Air Rescue and was able to see the second body floating in the pool. Arrangements were quickly made to have the Technical Rescue Team return to recover the second body. When they arrived, Keith Ellis, rescue coordinator for the rescue squad, donned a wet suit and went into the pool to recover the body.
This time, the Cherokee National Forest provided a helicopter to extract the body from the difficult terrain.
Ellis said the deaths of the father and son are the second and third drownings he has had to work at the falls.
While a drowning at Laurel Fork Falls is a rare event, the region has seen five drowning deaths, including the Copes, over the past five days.