A body found floating in the water below Laurel Falls on Independence Day led Carter County investigators to determine a second person was also missing.
Shortly before 10 a.m. on Wednesday, a hiker observed a body floating face down in the water below the falls, which is located in the Dennis Cove area of Carter County in a section of the Cherokee National Forest. Cell phone service is available at the falls, and the hiker was able to call 911 to report the discovery. Deputies and investigators from the Carter County Sheriff’s Department were the first on scene. A law enforcement agent with the U.S. Forest Service was also on scene.
To reach the falls, officers and rescue crews drove up Dennis Cove Road to a small parking area at the head of a trail which leads to the falls. The trail partially follows an old railroad bed, until the last portion, which is a steep walk down to the water. Overall, it is about a one-and-a-half-mile hike.
The Carter County Rescue Squad sent Technical Rescue teams to the falls in order to retrieve the deceased individual and search for the second person, who was presumed missing. The individual was deceased upon arrival, according to the coroner. The approximately 50-year-old man was found wearing shorts and shoes and was believed to have been in the water for some time.
Investigators located the individuals’ items, including two large backpacks and other hiking equipment on the banks of Laurel Fork. Because there were two backpacks and photos, officers assumed the deceased individual was traveling with a second person.
The white man in the water has not been identified pending notification of next of kin. Investigators said he was from Louisiana and was hiking along the Appalachian Trail.
Among the man’s belongings was a journal, which led officers to believe the man was hiking from Roan Mountain, through the Dennis Cove area and north to Damascus, Va. The journal’s last entry was made on Monday, according to investigators. A cell phone was also located among the items.
The second individual, who is still missing, was believed to be between 14 and 16 years old. It is unknown whether the youth went into the water or walked away from the falls. After removing the body from the water, rescue personnel put on their gear and searched the water for several hours. They also dragged the water to determine whether the individual had gone under. Rescuers also searched downstream for the second individual.
In addition to searching the water, investigators and Rescue Squad members checked with local hostels to determine whether the missing young man ventured out of Dennis Cove.
Rescue Coordinator Keith Ellis said the pool area under the falls has a very dangerous undercurrent. There is also a shelf which can drag swimmers under water and not allow them to surface. The undertow is especially strong and requires experienced divers. Rescue Squad members in the water were tethered by a rope for safety purposes.
It took crews a few hours to carry the body up the trail to where Rescue Squad vehicles parked along Dennis Cove Road. The trail from the falls to the parking area is covered with large stones, especially the first steep section leading from the water to the old railroad bed. The railroad bed cuts through large rocky sections, and crosses a creek by a footbridge. The body was placed onto a hard stretcher, covered with a white sheet and carried carefully to a waiting ambulance.
Investigators are not sure how or why the man went into the water or how he died. The body was to be taken to the James H. Quillen College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University for an autopsy. The investigators said they believe he fell into the water and drowned; however, an autopsy will give them a clearer idea.
A search was set to restart today for the second person.
Laurel Falls can also be reached from the parking lot at Highway 321, but the distance is greater than from the parking area on Dennis Cove. It is more than two miles from Highway 321 to Laurel Falls, which is very popular and attracts both avid hikers and families. Several hikers were turned away from the falls by officers on Wednesday. Laurel Falls is part of the Pond Mountain Wilderness Area, which is managed by the Cherokee National Forest.
Drownings are not uncommon at Laurel Falls, although this was the first fatality at the falls in a few years.
UPDATE: A second body has been located at Laurel Falls in Carter County following a search that began on Wednesday morning. The second body was located by a crew in a helicopter at 9:22. a.m. Thursday.
Carter County Sheriff Chris Mathes has identified the victims as Dwight F. Cope, 42, and Dagan Cope, 15, both of Breaux Bridge, La.