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Surprise reunion at Whetstone Gulf brings rescuers and victims together after 41 years

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MARTINSBURG — It was 41 years ago today that the Watertown Daily Times ran an article about a heroic rescue at Whetstone Gulf State Park. The event had a happy ending on that August evening, but it could have been a very different and tragic story for three Astafan sisters from Carthage.

The sisters, Rosalie, Marianne and Anna, then 12, 13 and 15 years old, respectively, had been hiking the gorge for several hours while on a camping trip with their parents, Libnan and Irene, and the rest of their family.

“We left around 1 in the afternoon,” recalled the oldest sister, now Anna M. Wood. When the hike took longer than expected, “We tried a shortcut, but got stuck on a ledge.”

Stuck on a ledge is an understatement.

The three were scaling the side of the gorge when the middle sister, now Marianne J. Warren, stepped on a tree jutting out from the steep side.

“Marianne grabbed the tree to climb up and the shale shifted,” Anna said.

The gravel and dirt below the tree loosened, falling some 350 feet below. Marianne was able to make it over the top of the gorge, but her sisters were stranded below her. The falling debris left nothing to grasp.

She ran for help while Anna and the youngest sister, now Rosalie B. Stevens, made their way to a small landing about 50 feet from the top of the gorge.

Marianne ran the entire way, approximately a mile and a half, back to the family’s campsite. She summoned help and ran all the way back to where her sisters were.

According to the Times, Lewis County sheriff’s Deputies J.D. Bailey and Thomas E. Jaconski, rescue squad member Gerald J. Der and state police Trooper William P. Walseman and Investigator Raymond O. Polett responded to the scene, using Corrigan Hill Road as the closest entrance.

Mr. Der was lowered by rope 50 feet to where the girls remained on the ledge. A harness made from another rope was passed down. Mr. Der placed Rosalie in the harness and guided her up.

“She went up first,” Anna recalled. “She was the youngest. I couldn’t leave her down there alone.”

Rosalie’s arm was pinched in the rescue, Anna said. “We’d made it that whole way and never got hurt, then she gets pinched in the rescue.”

The injury was minor and Rosalie was passed from Mr. Der to Mr. Walseman, who was situated on the tree with little soil below it. Mr. Walseman then passed the girl over his head to another rescuer above him.

Anna was rescued in the same manner.

They were taken back to the campsite by ambulance, but needed little medical attention.

“We just had bruises and scrapes,” Anna said.

That’s where their story ends — or did until last week, when another happy event occurred at the park while Mr. Der and his wife, Gladys, were there.

Mrs. Der said her husband isn’t much of a talker, and he rarely will strike up a conversation with strangers.

For some reason, however, he acted out of character, saying hello and chatting with another family as he walked around the campground.

When they exchanged names, they quickly realized their paths had crossed before. Mr. Der had wandered onto Anna’s campsite.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said of the moment they realized their connection. “Oh, my God! I wrapped my arms around him and cried.”

Following the unexpected reunion, Anna surprised Mr. Der later in the week, this time with Mr. Jaconski and Mrs. Astafan. Mr. Walseman was out of state and unable to attend.

It was another happy reunion. Though strangers for 41 years, the group carried on like old friends.

Mr. Jaconski recalled watching Mr. Der go over the side of the gorge.

“I watched him as he kept getting smaller and smaller,” he said.

Mrs. Astafan was able to thank the men, recalling the moment Marianne first arrived at the campsite without her sisters.

Mrs. Astafan said she did visit the rescue site at one point later on and didn’t like it because, Anna said, “She doesn’t like heights.”

Anna was able to tell her rescuers some information they never knew.

“When we were sitting down there, we were singing, ‘On Top of Old Smoky,’” she said.

“They were halfway down Old Smoky,” Mr. Jaconski joked.

Anna revealed another result of the two hours they waited to be rescued.

“We were sitting in poison ivy on that ledge,” she said. “That was our punishment later.”

The Astafan and Der families noted they both have camped at the park since the incident and, surprisingly, had never met in the last 41 years.

Because of his efforts, Mr. Der was named Fireman of the Year for the Northern New York Volunteer Firemen’s Association in June 1973. Mr. Jaconski was recognized with an Army & Navy American Legion Post 61 Law and Order Night Award for the rescue.

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