Next summer, when the 175th annual Erie County Fair begins, it just won’t be the same.
Trooper Ross M. Riley, one of its stars, will not be with his colleagues at the New York State Police Exhibit to demonstrate rappelling maneuvers from a 55-foot-high tower that often held spectators in awe at how troopers made the dangerous work of rescue appear routine.
“It’s scary to watch them, but they make it seem like second nature. They have a team of four troopers, and they do four shows daily here,” Holly Smyczynski, a fair spokeswoman, said Thursday. “I knew Ross, and he was very friendly. He was always willing to answer questions from the public. It was amazing that people came back to see that show year after year.”
Riley, 44, died Wednesday during a rappelling rescue training exercise at Letchworth State Park, sometimes called the Grand Canyon of the East with its tall cliffs in a gorge through which the Genesee River meanders.
Riley, standing on a ledge he and two colleagues had accessed by rappelling 70 feet down, suddenly toppled backwards and plunged 30 feet to the bottom of the gorge at Wolf Creek. How he became untethered from a safety line remains one of the focal points of an investigation that continued Thursday with troopers taking measurements, photographs and scouring the scene for other clues, State Police officials said.
The accident occurred after members of the State Police Special Operations Response Team, or SORT, had maneuvered a mannequin onto the ledge to practice a high-angle rescue of a stranded individual.
“Prior to the basket with the mannequin being raised, he had fallen backwards,” Trooper Victor Morales said. “The investigation is continuing, but at this point we do not have any updates. We’re checking everything.”
Riley, who was wearing a protective helmet, suffered massive head injuries. He died in Wyoming County Community Hospital, Warsaw.
Riley was a Marine Corps veteran of the Persian Gulf War, and his service as a trooper serving on SORT was likened to military duty.
“You tend to sometimes fail to recognize how dangerous the job of a police officer is across the board, especially these individuals who do these specialized responses,” said Christopher L. Cummings, who retired earlier this year as the State Police major in charge of this region’s Troop A.
“Everything they go to is a dangerous situation, and they must always be at their peak abilities and train continuously, and even the training is dangerous. Everything they do has a danger-related element,” Cummings said. “You can compare it to the military.”
Thomas H. Mungeer, president of the Police Benevolent Association of New York State Troopers, noted that 16 troopers have died in the line of duty since Nov. 23, 2003. “Each loss was tragic. Trooper Riley’s death was no different,” he said.
Rob Cartner, the training director at the National Tactical Officers Association in Doylestown, Pa., said this type of training, though potentially perilous, is necessary.
“The kind of mission this officer was on could actually happen for real, and if you do not train for it, then you’re ill-prepared and not able to respond appropriately to the needs of the victim,” Cartner said.
Training accidents, he said, happen for a variety of reasons.
“Typically it is a failure in equipment or a momentary loss of focus,” Cartner said. “Occasionally it happens to very experienced operators.”
He said the investigation is likely to sort out how the accident occurred.
“The tactical community takes notice of that and tries to learn from it so that the same tragedy is not repeated,” Cartner said.
But on Thursday, as fellow troopers were still coming to grips with their loss, they remembered Riley as a tremendous ambassador for their agency. He and different SORT teams performed not only at the Erie County Fair every year but in other venues, including the State Fair in Syracuse.
The rappelling tower at the fairgrounds in Hamburg was built in 2007 with donations from the community and businesses and became an instant must-see attraction, troopers said.
Morales, who emcees the rappelling demonstrations at the fair, said it allows troopers to demonstrate skill sets that average citizens do not normally witness.
“They’re curious and happy to watch the show. The troopers describe how they assist somebody who has gone over a cliff or down an embankment, whatever the situation may be,” Morales said.
“Ross was a dedicated professional trooper. His wife is a dedicated professional supervisor, and they are quality professional public servants,” said Cummings, referring to Heidi Riley, who serves as commander at the State Police station in Olean and is the mother of their three young daughters.
Funeral services are scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday in the Reilly Center at St. Bonaventure University, Allegany.
A wake is scheduled for 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday and Monday at the Casey, Halwig & Hartle Funeral Home, 3128 W. State Road, Allegany.
The funeral service is expected to attract large numbers of police officers from around the state.
An official at the funeral home said for those intending to send cards and other tributes, the mailing address is Casey, Halwig & Hartle, 3128 Route 417, Olean, N.Y. 14760.