It was Sunday afternoon in the Zoar Valley Gorge, a western New York nature oasis with flowing waterfalls and sheer cliffs, when a pair of hikers traversing its deepest floor came across the bodies.
At the base of the gorge, on a ledge near the water, lay a young married couple, William and Amanda Green, and their 4-year-old son Alexander. The boy was critically injured. His parents were dead.
Unbeknown to the hikers and later the authorities, 7-year-old Jacob, the Green’s eldest child, was wandering the gorge floor with a broken arm and ankle. He wouldn’t be found for another five hours.
What followed was a dramatic, treacherous race to evacuate the injured children by helicopter while rappellers and some 100 law enforcement officials frantically searched for clues.
A summer outing had turned tragic, authorities were able to determine, when at least three members of the Green family tumbled 200 feet down one of Zoar Valley’s steepest cliffs.
On Monday, officials were searching for answers.
The steep cliffs and winding waterways have claimed lives and confused explorers before, reported the Buffalo News, including at least three other deaths since the early 2000s. Others have been hurt or gone missing.
But there “are question marks that still remain,” Erie County Sheriff’s spokesman Scott Zylka told WBEN-AM (930) radio in Buffalo. “It’s going to take a little bit of time. We may never know exactly what happened.”
Family members have been “at the bedside” of the two orphaned children since they were discovered Sunday, Zylka said.
Alexander, the youngest, was airlifted to Buffalo’s Women and Children’s Hospital with a head wound, internal injuries and multiple fractures, according to the Sheriff’s Office. He was listed in “guarded condition” in the intensive care unit. Jacob, the eldest, was in good condition Monday, officials said.
“This tragic event has left us with empty hearts and without words,” the victims’ family said in a statement released through Amanda Green’s employer, BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York. “While the details of yesterday are still being discovered, we want to remember Amanda and William’s legacy as two parents that loved their children dearly.”
Family members said they were focused on the couple’s “two little boys” and would “share additional information at the appropriate time.” In its own statement, BlueCross BlueShield called Green, 35, a “beloved employee.” Her husband, William, was 33.
It was a family hike or camping outing that brought the Green family to scenic Zoar Valley Gorge, a 3,000-acre wild preserve covered with thick forest and difficult terrain that Zylka told WBEN radio was as “equally gorgeous as it is dangerous.”
“It is a gorge,” Capt. Daniel Richter, a New York state forest ranger, told the Associated Press. “It’s like anything else. You don’t want to get too close to the edge. There have been accidents. There have been fatalities. It’s just the nature of the area.”
The Green family was found in an area of the valley that houses some of the gorge’s highest cliffs, which reach up to 400 feet, reported the Buffalo News.
“It’s sheer,” Zylka said of the region in an interview with the Associated Press. “It drops straight down.”
The hikers who discovered Amanda, William and Alexander Green were not carrying cellphones, officials said, so they flagged down a third hiker who was then able to call for help. Authorities received a 911 call just before 1 p.m.
Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard said at a news conference that it remained unclear how long the Greens had been in the gorge before the hikers found them.
As rescuers worked to evacuate the couple and Alexander, they found footprints and a pair of tennis shoes too big to fit the 4-year-old’s feet. When they contacted the Green’s extended family, authorities learned 7-year-old Jacob had been along for the trip.
For hours, they searched the gorge floor for signs of the boy. With a broken right arm and ankle, Jacob finally crossed paths with an Erie County sheriff’s deputy just after 6 p.m., more than five hours after the rest of his family had been first discovered, Zylka told the Buffalo News.
It was unclear if the eldest child had also fallen down the cliff with his parents and brother.