A new report released Wednesday recommends that Lexington consider adding signs that warn visitors not to veer from designated hiking trails at Raven Run after a woman fell and died at the popular nature sanctuary.
The report also recommended city officials improve communication between park staff and emergency responders.
Lexington’s risk-management department made the recommendations after reviewing the March 19 accidental death of Mary “Katie” Katharine Stewart, 22, a Transylvania University student and a Kenton County native.
The report said Stewart “apparently lost her footing while attempting to gain a better view of some of the coyotes feeding on a dead deer at the bottom of the Chandler Creek Ravine.” Stewart was off the designated trails at Raven Run, the report said.
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The trail leading to the area where the accident occurred was not marked for hiking on park brochures. The area had a sign that read, “Park border — Do not cross.”
Stewart was believed to be about 100 to 150 yards off the red hiking trail at the nature sanctuary. She fell about 75 feet. When first responders reached her, she was dead.
As part of its recommendations, risk management said the park should explore adding signs in certain areas. The report did not recommend that Raven Run add railings.
Stewart was the second person to die at the park since 1995. The place where she fell wasn’t a place where people congregate, the report said.
“The majority of cliffs at Raven Run Nature Sanctuary are open and obvious,” the report said. “Many areas throughout the Commonwealth of Kentucky, such as Red River Gorge, have cliffs that are open, obvious and unprotected.”
Monica Conrad, director of the city’s parks and recreation department, said it’s impossible for parks to predict where hikers will go off trails and install railings.
“We cannot anticipate the areas where hikers may go off the trail,” Conrad said. There are warnings for hikers not to go off designated trails in the parking lot, on Raven Run trail markers, on trail head markers and at the nature center. “We are always reviewing our signage and will continue to do so. But I don’t know much more that we can do to strengthen that language.”
A hiker used a cellphone to call 911 after he saw Stewart fall. Raven Run staff, however, were not aware of the accident until first-responders arrived, the report said. That delayed the parks personnel from having equipment — such as special all-terrain vehicles — ready when emergency crews arrived.
Also, first-responders had accidentally blocked the predetermined landing pad for the medical helicopter. The helicopter landed in a different spot but ultimately was not needed.
Park staff used cellphones to communicate with each other. Parks should explore whether radios that can communicate with emergency responders are needed, the report said. It also recommended convening a meeting among fire, police and Raven Run employees to review the existing emergency response plan for Raven Run.
Conrad said new radios for the parks department are in Mayor Jim Gray’s budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
“It will allow our staff to communicate directly with each other rather than over cellphones,” Conrad said.
Public Safety Commissioner Ronnie Bastin said those radios will be part of an upgraded radio system for police and fire.
“We built the system to add additional divisions including the parks department,” Bastin said. “They can talk directly with police and fire or, if they don’t have a cellphone, they can talk directly to 911.”
When firefighters were eventually able to reach Stewart, they placed her in a boat, which then capsized. The six firefighters in the boat were wearing life preservers and swam to safety. Divers eventually retrieved Stewart’s body.
The risk management report did not address why the boat capsized. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, which has jurisdiction over waterways, is investigating that accident. An agency spokesman said that investigation should be completed within the next week.
Bastin said police and fire will review the case after fish and wildlife completes its investigation.
“I think it’s important to note that any response in a remote area is going to have some challenges,” Bastin said. “There was nothing that we saw in the response that could have made a difference in the outcome.”