March 14, 2010

Police investigating third gorge death at Cornell University

The Ithaca Police Department is investigating the death of Cornell University engineering student Matthew Zika, who died near the suspension bridge over Fall Creek Gorge. According to the Cornell Daily Sun, "police first responded to Fall Creek Gorge at around 3:45 p.m. Friday afternoon [March 12.] The IPD temporarily closed the suspension bridge and the Stewart Avenue Bridge after a motorist reported seeing a man drop from the suspension bridge. Other witnesses found an unattended jacket and backpack containing a wallet, cell phone and other personal possessions on the suspension bridge."

This incident follows two other student deaths in the Fall Creek Gorge---William Sinclair on March 10 and Bradley Ginsberg on February 17. On March 22, reported that the causes of all three deaths were determined to be suicide, bringing the total number to six for the academic year for Cornell, which CNN described as a "highly competitive Ivy League school."

Monitors have been temporarily placed at all bridges at Cornell University 24-7 and has plans to put up taller fences to act as a deterrent. They are also making students more aware of student support services.
On Wednesday, March 17, the school hosted a "Lift Your Spirits" rally featuring music and a wall for students to write their thoughts. The event was attended by several hundred students and community members and designed to help students cope with the recent deaths of their classmates.

Cornell University is no stranger to having deaths in the gorges on campus--both suicides and accidents--especially in the Fall Creek Gorge and Cascadilla Gorge. Research indicates at least 18 deaths in a Cornell gorge from 1994 to 2010. One death was the result of a fall through the ice, another occurred while swimming, and at least eight deaths indicate suicide. The circumstances in the other deaths are either unclear or still under investigation.

Statistics on gorge-related accidents at Cornell--and how the school compares to other ivy league universities of that size--are not yet known. However, it would appear that Cornell's suicide rate is in line with the national average. In an Associated Press article, it was reported that "before the recent spate there were no student suicides since 2005...the most accepted suicide rate for college students is about 7.5 a year per 100,000 students, said Chris Brownson, director of the Counseling and Mental Health Center at the University of Texas in Austin. That would put Cornell, a school of about 20,000 students with 14 confirmed suicides since 2000, at the average."

On March 22, CNN reported that "The national average for school suicides is 7.29 per year for every 100,000 students, said Paula Clayton, medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. That means Cornell, with 19,639 students, should average fewer than two suicides a year." The university's mental health initiatives director, Timothy Marchel, told CNN that he did not know what may have prompted the recent wave of suicides was unclear, as Cornell had no suicides from 2005 to 2008. CNN reported that the school has consistently fallen within or below the national average, according to Karen Carr, the assistant dean of students at Cornell.

However, the CNN article also noted that in the 1990s, after experiencing a cluster of suicides, the school was dubbed "Suicide University" and began a comprehensive program consisting of freshman screening for indicators of psychological disorders, student counseling services and suicide prevention training for all staff members, training them on the symptoms of depression. It's program had been praised and seen by other universities as a model.

Known Cornell University Gorge Deaths

03/11/2010 Matthew Zika from West Lafayette, IN. "Matthew Zika '11, a student in the College of Engineering, died near the suspension bridge over Fall Creek Gorge, according to the University...The IPD temporarily closed the suspension bridge and the Stewart Avenue Bridge after a witness reported seeing a man jump off the suspension bridge. Other witnesses found an unattended jacket and backpack containing a wallet, cell phone and other personal possessions on the suspension bridge." [Source: Cornell Daily Sun.] Death later ruled a suicide [Source:]

03/10/2010 William Sinclair from Chevy Chase, MD. "The body of William Anthony Sinclair, 19, of Chevy Chase, Md., a sophomore in the College of Engineering living on campus, was discovered about 11:20 a.m. Thursday, March 11, in Fall Creek Gorge near the Thurston Avenue Bridge." [Source: Cornell Chronicle Online.] Death later ruled a suicide [Source:]

02/17/2010 Bradley Ginsburg from Boca Raton, FL. "Rescue workers recovered the body of Bradley Ginsburg '13 from Fall Creek Gorge yesterday after the Cornell University Police Department received a call at about 10:10 a.m. that a body had been spotted under the Thurston Avenue Bridge....Ginsburg, 18, was an economics major in the College of Arts and Sciences from Boca Raton, Fla. He was a new member of Alpha Epsilon Pi." [Source: Cornell Daily Sun.] Death later ruled a suicide, but his parents are not convinced. [Source:]

06/26/2009 Lisa Longwell, who was not a Cornell student. "Cornell Police found a deceased female at the bottom of Fall Creek Gorge the afternoon of June 26 after receiving a call from a witness saying that a woman had jumped into the gorge from the fence next to the Suspension Bridge....Police found her carrying cigarettes, a broken watch and a note, according to the police report. A map and purse were found in her car.While witnesses tried to direct Longwell away from the edge, their efforts were to no avail." [Source: Cornell Daily Sun.]

10/08/2008 Jakub Jan Janecka, from Lake Ariel, PA, Cornell alumnus. The body of Jakub J. Janecka ’98 was found at the bottom of Cascadilla Gorge, under the College Avenue Bridge...A Cornell Police officer stated that the 33 year old had allegedly dove into the gorge...It is unconfirmed why the victim, a native of Lake Ariel, Pa., was in Ithaca. [Source: Cornell Daily Sun] According to his obituary, Janecka "received a Bachelor of Science in biology from Cornell University and a master’s degree in theology from the University of Scranton. This past spring, he earned a master’s degree in biology from Catholic University. He attended St. Thomas Church, Lake Ariel."

06/13/2008 Douglas Lowe, 18 years old, from Shelton, CT. "Cornell student Douglas Lowe, Class of 2011, age 18, of Shelton, Conn., drowned June 12 in the turbulent waters of the Fall Creek Gorge, a short distance west and downstream of the suspension bridge. According to the Ithaca Police Department report, 'Lowe was swimming with a friend and went under as they were preparing to get out of the water. Several attempts were made to locate Lowe by his friend and other swimmers who dove into the area where Lowe was last seen.'" [Source: Cornell Chronicle Online.]

04/30/2008 William Jacobson, 19 years old, from St. Paul, MN. Left a party and was walking back to his dorm 1/2 mile away. Found in 8-foot deep pond on the route he would have taken to his dorm.

09/15/2007 Keith O’Donnell, from Erial, NJ. "Said goodnight to his girlfriend at around 1:30 a.m. and was walking back to his dorm when he fell [30 feet into the Cascadilla Gorge]...He was airlifted to SUNY Upstate Medical University and treated for severe head injuries and a punctured lung, according to his aunt. The 23-year-old was a junior in the School of Hotel Administration....He was a star wrestler in high school and wrestled for two years for Cornell in the 174-pound weight class." [Source: Cornell Daily Sun.]

09/08/2007 Unidentified student fell into Cascadilla Creek Gorge.

03/10/2007 Unidentified male was rescued by the Ithaca Police and Fire Departments after falling through the ice in Cascadilla Creek Gorge; the Ithaca Police Department responded to a report of cries for help from the portion of the gorge above the College Avenue Bridge at 3:53 a.m. and found the victim drifting into a state of unconsciousness.

08/14/2006 Aravind Lakshmanan, 23 years old. "A body was found at the bottom of the Fall Creek gorge at around 1:30 pm on August 14th, according to the Ithaca Police Department and eyewitnesses. The body has been identified as Aravind Lakshmanan, a 23-year-old graduate student, according to the Ithaca Police Department. Investigators are continuing to work to discover the cause of death...Lakshmanan was a Ph. D candidate in the field of Applied Physics." [Source: Cornell Daily Sun.]

05/31/2006 Ash Thotambilu,
"Ash Thotambilu '06, who recently graduated from the College of Human Ecology, committed suicide on May 31, according to the Onondaga County Medical Examiner. Simeon Moss '73, University press relations office director, confirmed the death, but declined to provide any more information. 'Because of the privacy wishes of his family,' he said, 'we don't have anthing [sic] further to share.'" [Source: Cornell Daily Sun.]

05/10/2005 Daniel Pirfo, 19 years old. "Was reported missing at 1 AM Monday the 26th, by his roommate. Pirfo had last been seen at 4:45 AM Sunday morning in another room in the dorm. An unconfirmed sighting put him in the student lounge at 9 AM Sunday morning. Pirfo had reportedly been drinking Saturday night...On Tuesday, May 10th, three men fishing in Fall Creek Gorge, discovered a body at the base of the falls. The body was later identified as Pirfo, and his death was ruled as accidental." [Source: NYS Federation of SAR.]

11/20/2001 Alan Comerford, 21 years old, from Carmel, NY. "Comerford was a senior in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics in the College of Arts and Sciences. He had a position in the department as a student research and laboratory assistant...was a trained emergency medical technician (EMT). With an interest in pediatric emergency care, he was taking advanced EMT training at Tompkins Cortland Community College at the time of his death. ...The Ithaca Police Department, with the assistance of Cornell Police, are conducting an investigation...His body was recovered from Cascadilla Creek gorge Nov. 20." [Source: Cornell News.]

07/02/2000 Unidentified male, 27 years old, mathematics graduate student, Fall Creek gorge.

05/26/2000 Jun Wang, 19 years old, from Chevy Chase, MD. "Died after jumping into Fall Creek Gorge." [Source: Cornell Daily Sun.]

11/04/1994 Dustin D. Klingbergs, 21 years old, from Chardon, OH, Cornell alumnus."The body of Mr. Klingbergs was found about 7 A.M. yesterday lying face down in a pool of water at the bottom of the Cascadilla Creek Gorge. Mr. Klingbergs, who was still alive when found but did not respond to emergency treatment and was pronounced dead at the scene, was a former student who last registered for classes in the spring, and was still living near the campus, college officials said. A Cornell student told the police that he had been walking home with Mr. Klingbergs about 4 A.M. along a trail that runs parallel to the ravine. Mr. Klingbergs, who had been drinking earlier, suddenly seemed to become despondent. There was a struggle as the student grabbed hold of Mr. Klingbergs's clothing in an effort to keep him from leaping into the ravine, but he was unsuccessful." [Source: Cornell Daily Sun.]

10/xx/1994 Steven K. Michitisch, 19 years old, from Albertson, Long Island, NY. Ruled an accident. [Source: Cornell Daily Sun.]

Thank you to Lee Gilbertson for providing assistance with this list.


Monique777 said...

Three student drowning deaths on campus in less than 30 days would beat the national average of 2 deaths per year as stated. This sticks out like a sore thumb and as BITM suggested, it may be possible the FBI has unofficially become involved due to the curious events at Cornell.
Authorities know drowning is one of the least preferred methods of suicide, yet to find 3 drowning deaths by suicide in less than 30 days would prompt an investigation to get to the root of and to gain a better happening of what is taking place on this campus. A university does not go on suicide lock-down without taking further action to gain a better understanding of how to help safe-guard their students. So, it is believable a laundry list of authorities have become involved to prevent futher deaths.

Lisa said...

You are right on the money, except I should clarifty that it is not yet known how the students died. Witness reports indicate that Zika may have jumped, and details are still sketchy on Sinclair and Ginsburg. In any event, suicide by fall is more rare than by other means, accounting for just 2.1% of the total (Source: So these deaths cause us all to ask what is going on in Ithaca. You could be right, this may be why the FBI got involved.

Monique777 said...

@ Lisa

You are so right. I was basing the 2 previous deaths as being suicides on recent articles insinuating suicide and the university going on lock-down. But on further investigation it appears neither of the two previous deaths had a conclusion of suicide. One earlier article speculated Sinclair had fallen into the gorge. But it is probably safe to say the 3rd death was suicide because there was a witness.
Also, I previously stated on a different link that it appeared to be a rash decision when he put his back-pack down and jumped. This assumption was wrong. He may have been entertaining this idea for a long time.

Anonymous said...

Based on what information have they thought Matthew Zika committed suicide? Was it made clear if the witness SAW Matthew jump or did they say they saw him FALL? If in fact the 1990 programs were still in place,("which were praised and modeled at other universities") to recognize suicidal tendencies,how did this happen? I'm still saying the individual is trapped on the bridge and thrown off. I feel the ruling of suicide is just the lack of any other obvious conclusion.... I know... I know..... there is no proof.

Anonymous said...

As a parent of a Cornell student who died from a fall from the Stewart Avenue Bridge in 2001 I encourage the Ginsburg family to continue to believe that it wasn't suicide. The Ithaca Police Dept. and the coroner will call it a suicide if they have nothing else. If his friends say he wasn't despondent then he probably wasn't. I am so sorry for your loss.
Elyse C
9:14 PM, 3/22/2010

This was a comment following a news article about Bradley Ginsburg. I believe it is from Alan's mother.