Lehigh Valley Quarries Getting a Flood of Trespassers | NBC 10 Philadelphia

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Lehigh Valley Quarries Getting a Flood of Trespassers

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A inflatable inner tube floats on water in the remote Bangor quarry.

Even as rescue crews and state troopers lined the banks of the quarry to help divers search for the body of a 19-year-old, young people worked their way down the ledges surrounding the sparkling water.

As the visitors took off their shirts, hoots of laughter and the sounds of splashing echoed in the deep pit where workers once dug sand and gravel.

The group had come to the quarry along Route 611 in Lower Mount Bethel Township for high dives into cool water — some from as high as 100 feet — after climbing over and under fences, crossing railroad tracks and trekking through fields clearly marked with "no trespassing" signs.

Just weeks before, Jonathan Baksh of Edison, N.J., posted an online photo of himself sitting on a ledge high above a quarry. He tagged it "The Adventurer" — he was the 19-year-old the divers eventually pulled from the quarry.

"It's a place that is beautiful but deadly," said state police Capt. Brian Tobin, commander of Troop M in Bethlehem.

Authorities say the number of visitors flocking to area quarries to swim illegally is on the rise. So are the number of deaths, with two since mid-June at the abandoned Eastern Industries quarry in Lower Mount Bethel. This year, state police have arrested 80 people for trespassing there.

Across the United States, 193 people — 20 from Pennsylvania — drowned at quarries from 1999 through 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, which tracks deaths at abandoned and active quarries.

The two deaths this summer at the abandoned quarry in Lower Mount Bethel top the yearly average of 1.3 deaths statewide since 1999. Before this summer, four people had drowned at Lehigh Valley quarries in the past 15 years, according to federal statistics.

There are more than 3,160 inactive quarries in Pennsylvania, said Amanda Witman, a Labor Department spokeswoman. No statutes compel private owners of abandoned quarries to put up "no trespassing" signs or fences, or otherwise secure their properties, she said.

For some locals, it's a family tradition to cool off at the abandoned quarries. But that doesn't explain the out-of-state swimmers coming to the Slate Belt, a slice of northeastern Northampton County dotted with old gravel and slate quarries now filled with crystal-clear water.

Nicole Appleman of Edison, who was Baksh's seventh-grade teacher and remains close to his family, thinks she knows one reason behind the allure.

This summer on Instagram, Appleman said, she has watched an explosion of photos about quarry swimming and diving, with youths bragging about surviving the plunge from jagged cliffs into water hiding deep crevasses and junked cars. Many posts include addresses and exact directions to the quarries.

Appleman, the mother of a teen, said she keeps an eye on social media to help her understand her son and his peers.

"To many of these kids, it seems so intriguing, fun and different and there's nothing like that around here," Appleman said. "And I don't think these kids even realize the dangers involved."

Taking a Toll

In his 20 years on the job, Mike Rau, chief of Pennsylvania Water Rescue Station 72, cannot remember a busier summer for calls to the Eastern Industries quarry, which he describes as "just a beautiful spot."

"But when these kind of dangers keep happening again and again and again," Rau said, "we need to hold people accountable for their actions."

At the Eastern Industries quarry, several "no trespassing" signs are posted, including one that reads: "Danger open pit. No trespassing, no swimming."

On June 14, Jeremias Guzman, 22, died while swimming at the quarry. Police said Guzman — who lived in Ridgefield, N.J., about 85 miles away — was with as many as 80 people when he jumped in, struggled to resurface and went under again.

Both Guzman and Baksh died from drowning, Northampton County Coroner Zachary Lysek said.

After the two deaths, state police said they stepped up patrols of the Eastern Industries quarry, which sits along the Delaware River. A sign on Route 611 marks the quarry's location, but those going for a dip don't park along the busy, two-lane road. Police declined to say where they look for swimmers' cars.

A few hours before Baksh drowned in the quarry waters, police cited four people for trespassing there. As crews worked to recover Baksh's body, police cited 15 more.

On Aug. 28, police cited seven people from New Jersey who arrived with camping gear and alcohol. Police said one of them jumped into the Delaware River and tried to escape by swimming to New Jersey.

A trooper enlisted two people with a boat to help rescue the man, who was 19, from the river. He faces trespassing and drug charges after, police say, they found hallucinogenic mushrooms in his backpack.

Tobin, the state police commander, said the sheer size of the quarry — 523 acres, according to township officials — makes it impossible to entirely fence it off, which leaves trespassing citations as the main weapon to deter swimmers.

"We have a zero tolerance for people who are trespassing out there," Tobin said. "I know it's only a fine, but when it takes money out of their pocket, that's the extent of our prevention."

The maximum penalty for criminal trespass is a fine of $300, plus court costs. All those arrested at the quarry this year were ages 16 to 21 and most were from New Jersey, according to police. Trespassing citations for previous years weren't available, state police said.

Troopers have worked with the property owner to reduce the trespassing, said state police Lt. Joseph Sparich, of the Belfast barracks.

At least a portion of the property is surrounded by a fence, and state police said to get to the water, people have to cross several railroad tracks and other barriers that make it obvious it's not just a swimming hole in the woods.

Property owners generally have to offer more protections to visitors than to trespassers, said Jason Schiffer, an attorney with the Cohen, Feeley, Altemose & Rambo law firm.

"With an abandoned quarry, they don't want people there and they aren't inviting them there to swim," Schiffer said. "If they are posting no trespassing signs or have other enclosures to keep people out, that's a good step for the property owner to make it clear no one should be there."

Officials at Eastern Industries did not respond to calls and emails for comment.

Dwight Jones lives near the quarry, where he worked when it was owned by Alpha Cement Co., before the pit filled with rainwater. He recalled standing at the bottom and craning his neck to try to see the top.

"There's no doubt, it is incredibly deep and dangerous in there," Jones said. "It's not an area you can just fence in and keep people out. It's massive."

Jones said he had little doubt that people would continue to seek out the quarry for swimming.

"When it comes to telling young people what to do," he said, "I don't think anyone is going to convince them otherwise."

Seven Slopes Quarry

Less than 10 miles to the north, Bangor police have cited 40 people this year for criminal trespass at one of the borough's two quarries. If hot weather persists, Chief Scott Felchock said, that number will rise. Last year, police cited 41 people for the same offense.

Felchock said he estimates officers only catch about half the offenders — on Aug. 28, three people were cited but seven others escaped.

"There are only so many places where we can put officers to catch them," Felchock said. "We only have so many officers on call at a time, and there are a bunch of different ways to get in and out."

On Aug. 31, Felchock found nine people parked near the quarry who said they planned to hike the area, although they were wearing swimsuits. Two of those stopped included young children, about 4 or 5 years old. Felchock said he warned them not to swim in the quarry, and they left in vehicles with New Jersey license plates.

Bangor police cited 19 people Aug. 22 and 23 for trespassing at the quarry known as Seven Slopes. Felchock said alert neighbors surrounding the quarries don't hesitate to call police when they see trespassers. During the summer months, he will stop at the private quarry property a few times a day to check things out.

Unlike the Lower Mount Bethel quarry, which authorities describe as "partially" fenced in, Seven Slopes in Bangor is nearly surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.

On Aug. 26, Felchock and Jerry Wilson, who leases the quarry property, put a new padlock on the chain that secures one of the gates — the previous padlock had to be cut by fire crews to gain access for a rescue.

But, they said, it's not unusual to find the padlock cut or damaged as swimmers look for another way to get to the water, which Wilson estimates may be as deep as 600 feet in parts. Also, Felchock said, the fence does little to deter the tide of swimmers, who snip it or climb over it.

There's also evidence they sometimes leave in a hurry. In one area, Felchock said, police and residents gathered up the discarded items left by swimmers when they ran from police. After a while, they filled five large garbage bags with swimming suits, socks, underwear and garbage.

"When they see the cops, everyone just takes off and leaves everything behind," Felchock said.

He estimates his officers will be busy with trespassing swimmers for another month or so, and lifesaving equipment was added to deal with them. They used a donation to buy orange flotation discs that look like Frisbees attached to a nylon cord that can stretch up to 150 feet.

"We don't want to have to use these, but we know people will continue to come to the quarry," Felchock said.

The Allure, The Danger

A few hundred feet from a Bangor side street, a wooded slope gives way to a rocky outcropping. About 40 feet below, the deep blue water acts like a mirror, casting reflections of the jagged cliffs above.

Well-worn paths snake through the quarry, slate shards crackle underfoot and some tumble into the water. Fish dart away from the intrusion.

Felchock points across the quarry to the cliff most divers flock to — it's about 120 feet above the water. Graffiti dots the cliffs. There are several hearts with the initials of lovers inside them, a cross, a peace sign and endless names of swimmers who wanted to leave their mark.

He points out a dangerous spot where numerous crevasses cut deep into the slate cliffs along the shore.

"It's not a spot where I feel safe in, because if you fall 6 or 8 feet down that crevasse and hit your head, you're done," Felchock said.

A sign makes no mention of crevasses or other hidden dangers. It says: "Posted private property. Hunting, fishing, trapping or trespassing for any purpose is strictly forbidden. Violators will be prosecuted."

With his polarized sunglasses, Felchock can see the dangers below the beauty of the water — ledges and piles of slate that can injure swimmers and divers. Not far from the sheer cliff wall lies a column of sunken vehicles and hidden metal cables.

On Aug. 16, police said, a 20-year-old Emmaus man was injured at the quarry when he plunged about 100 feet off the edge of a cliff and slammed into the water. As fire crews launched a boat into the quarry to help rescue the man, jagged slate under the water's surface sliced a hole in the boat, Felchock said.

Tom Wolfgang, who is with the U.S. Department of Labor's Stay Out Stay Alive program, which emphasizes the dangers of trespassing at quarries and mines, said the risk goes beyond the sharp and unpredictable ledges or discarded machinery under the water.

The water temperature in the quarry can change dramatically below the surface, posing an even greater risk for cliff divers, he said. Even in midsummer, quarry water may be in the 70s near the surface and dip to the 50s just 15 feet below.

"At that deeper depth, the water gets extremely cold," Wolfgang said. "That can put a person into shock where they will lose all concept of what way is up or down."

He said "cold shock" can cause a swimmer to gasp and drown or lead to hypothermia.

Wolfgang said the body's reaction to jumping into cold water typically follows three stages: In the first four minutes, cold shock can cause nearly immediate drowning. Or a swimmer may experience a "loss of performance" within 30 minutes with reduced circulation that causes stiff fingers, making it nearly impossible to grasp a rescue line.

Most swimmers don't make it to the third stage, hypothermia, which occurs after 30 minutes and results in slurred speech, confusion and drowsiness.

Authorities say they are still unsure exactly how Baksh slipped below the surface of the Eastern Industries quarry.

Described as an avid swimmer, Baksh was with two friends when they decided to swim from one side of the quarry to the other, said Lysek, the coroner, who noted the span in that area is about 1,000 feet. All three were holding onto an inflatable inner tube.

When the water became murky, Baksh's two friends said they wanted to turn back, he said. But Baksh said he was going to continue and pushed off away from the inner tube and kept going, according to Lysek. At some point, the friends turned to see that Baksh was gone.

Baksh was found about 60 yards from shore in a section of the quarry that is 25 feet deep.

With the owner's permission, Baksh's family went to the quarry Aug. 17. His father, Ben Yabra, posted several videos on Facebook showing friends and family kissing flowers and floating them into the still quarry water.

Sally Yabra, the teen's mother, posted a photo of a "no trespassing violators will be prosecuted" sign and commented: "It's dangerous. No life guards."

She also wrote that the landscape is "captivating" but treacherous because of water currents. Even during the vigil, Yabra wrote, family members saw "a bunch of kids jumping off the rocks."

State police cited seven more trespassers that day. All were from New Jersey.

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