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Pierre girl identified in South Dakota climbing fatality

Falling Rock is a popular rock-climbing destination just west of Rapid City. Rapid City Journal file photo

RAPID CITY, S.D. - Sunday’s death at Falling Rock is at least the ninth fatal accident at the popular spot near Rapid City, where officials have resisted installing preventative safety measures.

The Pennington County Sheriff’s Office said Monday afternoon, April 1, that Sunday's victim was 6-year-old Sadie Whitetwin of Pierre.

Rapid City Journal archives contain records of at least eight prior fatal accidents at Falling Rock dating to 1985, which means an accidental death has happened there about once every four years on average for the past 34 years. Two of the nine fatal victims, including Sunday’s victim, were young children. The age of the victims ranged from 6 to 50.

Additionally, there have been at least 10 publicly reported instances of people suffering injuries but surviving at Falling Rock after falling at least dozens of feet.

Falling Rock is several miles west of Rapid City. From the parking area alongside Falling Rock Road, just off state Highway 44, a short stroll brings visitors to the edge of a cliff that towers several hundred feet above Rapid Creek. The only sign at the parking area advises visitors that campfires are prohibited.

The well-worn path to the cliff’s edge is on public land in the Black Hills National Forest. Scott Jacobson, a public affairs officer for the forest, said Monday that forest officials “won't be able to provide a statement at this time" on the safety problem at Falling Rock.

Tammy Stadel, team leader for Pennington County Search and Rescue, said preventative measures such as signage or railings are “not something we feel are strongly needed.”

“There’s an inherent risk anytime folks go out and participate in an activity in the wilderness, whether they’re hiking or mountain-biking or just walking along trails,” Stadel said. “There’s always going to be an inherent risk, and I think that’s kind of an assumed risk.”

She said the high number of fatal accidents at Falling Rock is not necessarily because it’s more dangerous than other places in the Black Hills, but probably because it’s more frequently visited.

Sentiments such as Stadel’s have been commonly espoused by public safety and Forest Service officials.

Bob Thompson, formerly the district ranger of the forest’s Mystic District, which includes Falling Rock, was quoted or paraphrased several times by the Journal after fatal and nonfatal accidents during the 2000s.

In 2005, after an 8-year-old boy fell to his death, Thompson said if signs were posted to advise the public of the danger at Falling Rock, the federal government could then become liable for accidents on federal land that were not marked as dangerous.

In 2012, after a teenager survived a fall of an estimated 100 feet at Falling Rock, Thompson said the Forest Service would not erect signs at Falling Rock because signs are frequently vandalized, and because erecting one sign at a place of risk might require the Forest Service to post many additional signs at other places of risk.

The Forest Service took at least one preventative action at Falling Rock around the year 2000, according to Journal archives, when Forest Service officials worked with homeowners in the Falling Rock area to build a roadside berm that made the site less accessible.

“Part of the thought was that would reduce at least some of the partying and some of the more risky behavior that was going on up there,” Thompson was quoted as saying at the time.

Among the nine fatal accident victims at Falling Rock since 1985, at least three were reported to have been consuming alcohol.

Among the other six fatal victims, five were described as having been hiking or walking, and one fell while rock climbing.

Prior to the death of Whitetwin last weekend, the youngest fatal Falling Rock victim identified in Journal archives was Matthew Reddest-Reynolds, who was 8 when he fell to his death while hiking on Aug. 12, 2005.