Chief Investigative Reporter

Jeremy Finley is the chief investigator for News4 Investigates. His reporting has resulted in criminal convictions, legislative hearings before the U.S. Congress, and the payout of more than a million dollars to scam victims.

Steven Pierce

Steven Pierce (Photo submitted)

NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) - While the family of a drowning victim at Cummins Falls criticizes the state for not implementing a long-promised flood warning system, another family of another victim is suing them for it.

The families are reacting after News4 Investigates exposed how bureaucracy within the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation stalled plans for the flood warning system.

Attorneys for the family of 2-year-old Steven Pierce wrote a letter to TDEC’s general counsel, claiming that the state was “grossly negligent” for keeping the park open on the day that the boy died.

The letter also criticized the state for failing to implement the long-promised flood warning system.

The letter claims that if the state does not begin settlement discussions, then the attorneys will sue.

At the same time, the family of drowning victim Missy Tufts-Hillian, who drowned in 2017 at the park, want to focus on advocacy.

Elizabeth Leavitt said her sister’s drowning forever impacted her family.

“People say that certain events define your life, before and after, and that was it for my family,” Leavitt said.

With the two-year anniversary of Tufts-Hillian’s drowning approach on July 5, Leavitt said her family was horrified to learn that Pierce had drowned.

“Initially, I was very angry, and then, it's a little bit difficult to put in words, reliving the whole nightmare of the news with Missy,” Leavitt said.

Leavitt said she was furious when she watched the News4 Investigates report of how the flood warning system plan had stalled.

“Did you all believe that a warning system had been put in place?” asked News4 Investigates.

“I assumed that it was happening the way it should be,” Leavitt said. “Shame on anyone who was involved with that system not being put in place.”

News4 Investigates found after Tufts-Hillian and 73-year-old Peggy McDaniel drowned in 2017, an almost immediate flood warning system plan was created by Tennessee Tech University.

But we found after a year of emails between Tennessee Tech and TDEC, the plan suddenly stopped being discussed when questions were raised about bidding out the project beyond a single vendor.

In a hearing last month, TDEC’s relatively new commissioner David Salyers admitted a mistake was made.

“Somewhere in 2018, the project lost traction and lost vision, for some reason, and did not move forward,” Salyers said.

But emails show Salyers and other department heads in the agency knew the warning system wasn’t in place and people were still allowed into the falls on June 9 despite rains the day before and forecast that day.

A spokesman for TDEC told News4 Investigates last week that they could not comment because of potential litigation.

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