A nighttime caving expedition at Hasbrouck Park took a horrific turn on Monday when a SUNY New Paltz student slipped off the edge of a cliff and fell nearly 200 feet to her death. Bad weather and treacherous terrain forced city firefighters to wait until morning before carrying out a grueling and risky recovery operation.
On Tuesday, officials at SUNY New Paltz identified the victim as Katherine Vollmer, a 20 year-old visual arts major who had transferred to the school in September from Monroe Community College. According to Kingston police, Vollmer was part of an informal hiking group that was exploring old cement caves and trails in upper Hasbrouck Park. The group entered the park around 6:30 p.m. Police say the group became lost and were walking downhill along the edge of a cliff to return to their vehicles around 9:50 p.m. when Vollmer lost her footing and slid off the edge of the cliff. Vollmer fell nearly 200 feet before landing in a cave further down the escarpment. A member of the group called 911 and Kingston police and firefighters responded.
Kingston Fire Chief Mark Brown said Tuesday that 13 city firefighters, including members of the department’s rope rescue team, responded to the incident. Brown said that he and other members of the ropes team spent nearly three hours struggling in slick conditions and zero visibility Monday night trying to reach Vollmer’s body by making their way through caves above the site.
“It was so slick, so dangerous it’s a miracle none of us got hurt trying to get down there,” said Brown.
By 1 a.m., firefighters had gotten a visual on Vollmer’s body, and concluded that she was dead. With pouring rain and steep terrain making the recovery effort increasingly risky, Brown said that firefighters reluctantly decided to call off the operation until daylight.
“That wasn’t a decision anyone wanted to make,” said Brown. “But continuing at that point would have put numerous people in danger.”
On Tuesday morning, said Brown, the rope rescue team returned to the site, now coated with a layer of wet snow, and resumed the recovery operation. Brown said team members followed a narrow sloping gorge choked with fallen trees and rocks until they reached a point about 100 feet above where Vollmer’s body lay. Firefighters struggled to set up equipment in a constricted space, allowing two members of the rope team to rappel down the cliff face and recover Vollmer’s body.