Parents of toddler killed at Tennessee state park seek $900K

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The parents of a 2-year-old Kentucky boy who died at a Tennessee state park last month are seeking $900,000 in damages from the state.

Attorney Christopher Smith tells The Tennessean that the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation was negligent in not having made Cummins Falls State Park safer.

Steven Pierce was at the park with his family when he was swept away in a flash flood as his family tried to evacuate. State Parks Assistant Chief Ranger J.R. Tinch said water rose to dangerous levels in 2 minutes. Steven’s body was found hours later.

The claim filed Friday says the park shouldn’t have been open to visitors as heavy rain and possible flooding closed it in preceding days. The state has three months to approve or deny the claim.

Delays, confusion mean no warning system

Two years of delays and confusion stymied plans at Cummins Falls State Park in Tennessee for a flood warning system, a safeguard that was never installed before the deadly accident.

WPLN-FM’s review of Department of Environment and Conservation and Tennessee Tech University emails shows enthusiasm for the system in the weeks after a fatal 2017 flood. Two people died in that accident at the popular swimming locale, a gorge below a 75-foot waterfall.

Storms that hit surrounding streams can create a wave of flood water into the waterfall there, even if there’s no rain falling in the park.

Some Tennessee Tech professors emailed the park manager, Ray Cutcher, in the weeks after the deadly 2017 flood with an idea to design a system to measure the water flowing into the park. The system would give at least an hour’s warning before a flood wave at the park, instead of only minutes.

In September 2017, Cutcher sent a $37,000 proposal to state environmental higher-ups. Months later, he received university funding confirmation.

In May 2018, department procurement contacted Tech professors about which company would set up the system.

Last month, Parks and Conservation Deputy Commissioner Jim Bryson told lawmakers that after the 2017 flooding, a warning system was identified, funded and requested by state parks and Tennessee Tech University, which was familiar with the equipment.

Bryson said state procurement decided there was no justification for a sole-source contract, didn’t allow bidding and identified another possible supplier. He said Tennessee Tech’s contact said it would ask colleagues about the supplier but never responded to procurement, which didn’t follow up.

However, Cutcher continued to communicate with the Tech professors about the procurement process. The park manager told the professors that the parties were crafting a legal agreement, though it was unclear from the emails who at Tech was responsible for that.

In subsequent months, the groups involved expressed frustration.

“This is, however, taking longer than I thought,” Cutcher wrote, saying he wanted to buy the equipment before the June 2018 end of the fiscal year.

“What exactly do you need from us?” Evan Hart, with Tennessee Tech, said in response, and they looked for a time to talk on the phone.

Hart sent another email six months later: “Is there any news?”

New state environmental commissioner David Salyers visited the park in April and asked about the system. In May and June, emails show people trying to figure out where things halted.

Then in June, the body of 2-year-old Pierce was recovered after heavy rains made conditions dangerous and led to more than 60 people being rescued.

Within two days, the department received approval for an emergency contract with a Utah-based company to install the warning system. Officials had the purchase order for $42,500 in about a week.

The company told WPLN-FM that it has not started any physical installation yet.

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