‘ ITAPPEARS TOBE A SELFIE EPIDEMIC’
Israeli teen ventured on to cliff, despite witnesses’ warnings, for memorable photo before slipping
By Paul Rogers
They warned him not to do it. But Tomer Frankfurter was just two months past his 18th birthday, an outgoing math student from Jerusalem who set off to tour America before starting his compulsory service with the Israeli army, and he had a taste for adventure.
On a warm September afternoon in Yosemite National Park, he joined a group of tourists bound for the Mist Trail, a popular but rigorous 5.4-mile route that takes hikers to the cliffs above the stunning, 594-foot-high Nevada Fall.
The group ate lunch and prepared to head back, but Frankfurter had something he wanted to do first. He took off his orange backpack and handed his phone to a young woman in the group, saying he wanted a memorable photo to take home. Then he began climbing over the cliff edge.
Other hikers shouted for him to stop, that it was too dangerous. But soon the young man in the green T-shirt, with $26 in his wallet and a souvenir Yosemite magnet in the backpack he left behind, was dangling hundreds of feet above the rocks below.
For a few seconds, everything seemed
SAFETY AND SELFIES: PHOTOS WITH A RISK
From 2011 to 2017, at least 259 people around the world died taking selfies. Their average age was 23. Three died at Yosemite last year. Tomer Frankfurter, left, fell to his death at Nevada Fall, above, trying to replicate an image tourists take at Telegraph Rock in Brazil, right. A Bay Area couple fell to their deaths in October at Taft Point.
TOP: SEAN GALLUP — GETTY IMAGES; RIGHT: COURTESY OF ALANA MACEDO — INSTAGRAM @DI_ LANA
fine. The woman taking pictures snapped away.
Then Frankfurter said: “I need help.”
People ran to him. They grabbed his arms and wrists. They strained to pull him back to safety. But he was getting tired and his arms were slippery with sweat. He began to slide out of their grasp.
And then he fell.
Frankfurter’s death, on Sept. 4, was reported widely. But the dramatic details of the accident — one of a growing number of fatalities involving young people in search of spectacular photos, often to post on Instagram, Facebook or other social media — have not been made public until now, after being obtained by this organization through a Freedom of Information Act request.
“Frankfurter fell in a tragic accident, in circumstances that he was entirely in control of until the point of the fall,” wrote Jesse Mc-Gahey, the Yosemite ranger who filed the report on the investigation into the death.
“The witnesses that attempted to render aid were heroic in their actions,” McGahey said. “But once Frankfurter descended to hang from the edge of the cliff face, there was nothing they could have done to prevent his fall with the equipment available.”
For generations, visitors have taken risks at Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and other national parks. Some have died by getting too close to cliffs or waterfalls while trying to photograph landscapes. A man from Hong Kong died last week at the Grand Canyon when he stumbled while taking a photo and fell 1,000 feet.
Now, however, the internet and social media are changing the equation. The goal is often not to come back with a scenic photo, but rather to come back with a photo of yourself taking a risk, experts say.
“It appears to be a selfie epidemic,” said Michael Ghiglieri, co-author of “Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite,” a 2007 book about fatal accidents in the park.
“Today people are trying to prove that they did something,” Ghiglieri said. “In the old days people went out to have an experience. Now they go out to record that they had that experience.”
Frankfurter, who graduated early from high school and had studied for two years at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was staying in the United States for a few weeks, visiting a family friend in Fresno.
They came to the park together but were separated. Later that day, Frankfurter met a group of young people from Israel, Germany and other countries on the park shuttle bus, and they decided to hike the Mist Trail together.
Frankfurter told his new friends that he wanted to duplicate a photo that tourists who go to Brazil commonly take at Telegraph Rock, near Rio de Janeiro.
There, visitors hang from a rocky outcropping, and it appears in photos as if they are thousands of feet above the ground, while in reality they are only 3 feet above a nearby trail.
The height of Nevada Fall, however, is no optical illusion.
“I thought he was joking,” one witness told investigators, referring to Frankfurter. “I turned around because I couldn’t watch, but he was hanging off the rock. Then he started to struggle.”
Other tourists looked on in horror.
“I heard some of my friends screaming ‘come quickly, everyone, hurry!’” one witness said.
“Help! We need help! He’s falling!” another person yelled, as three people lay on the rock struggling to pull him back.
“People started running toward him,” one witness said. “But he just couldn’t hang on anymore.”
As he fell, other hikers turned away. Some screamed and broke down in sobs.
According to the investigation report, Frankfurter died instantly on impact near the river below.
From 2011 to 2017, at least 259 people around the world died while attempting to take sel fies, according to a study published last year in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care.
Their average age was 23. Three-quarters were male. The most common causes of death were drowning, often by being swept into the ocean by big waves; transportation accidents, such as being hit by a moving train; and falling from high places.
“Most people will say, ‘I want the photo, but it’s too dangerous,’” said Ghiglieri, a former Army platoon sergeant in Vietnam who has led more than 600 outdoor trips to places as diverse as the Grand Canyon and Rwanda.
“Some people — and it’s almost always guys — recognize it’s dangerous, but they don’t internalize it as dangerous. They perceive it like a Hollywood movie set. It’s a disconnect.”
Ghiglieri said there’s not much that national parks can do.
“It’s impossible,” he said. “Even if you built miles of cyclone fencing, someone would climb over it.”
Yosemite officials declined to comment on Frankfurter’s case. Before releasing the report, they redacted names of the witnesses interviewed by rangers and declined to release photographs witnesses had taken of Frankfurter atop the cliff.
Ghiglieri said it probably would be useful for national parks to update their warnings with the younger generation in mind, perhaps with messages such as “Be careful when taking photographs. No selfie is worth your life,” or something similar.
Park officials said they have no plans for that at the moment.
“We post signs in some areas, at the top of Mist Trail, for example, warning people to stay away from the edge,” Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said. “And, of course, we have safety messages in our park newspaper and on the website. However, we don’t have anything specific about taking photos on the edges of cliffs.”
In October, a married couple — Vishnu V iswanath, a 29-year-old computer engineer with Cisco Systems in San Jose, and his wife, Meenakshi Moorthy, 30, a prominent travel blogger — fell to their deaths from Taft Point in Yosemite. A photo tripod was set up near where they fell.
The couple maintained a website called “Holidays and Happily Ever Afters” about their adventures. Moorthy wrote on the couple’s Instagram account about the dangers of trying to take scenic photos from high places for social media accounts. With a photo of her at the edge of the Grand Canyon, she wrote in March 2018: “A lot of us including yours truly is a fan of daredevilry attempts of standing at the edge of cliffs and skyscrapers, but did you know that wind gusts can be FATAL?? Is our life just worth one photo?”
Park officials have not yet disclosed how the couple fell.
Roughly 5 million people a year visit Yosemite. Ghiglieri said that at least 1,004 have died in the park since 1851, with more than 300 perishing in steep falls.
Ghiglieri said one difficult lesson from the recent tragedy, and the trend of taking risky photos worldwide, is that people should refuse requests to take dangerous photos when they are asked.
“In a common-sense way,” he said, “many of these accidents could not happen without that assistance.”
Contact Paul Rogers at 408- 920- 5045.
Israeli teen Tomer Frankfurter fell while taking a selfie at Yosemite’s Nevada Fall. The height is no optical illusion, like at Telegraph Rock in Brazil, where visitors take selfies hanging from a rock outcropping that is only feet above the ground.
PHOTO BY GETTY IMAGES
Travelers Vishnu Viswanath, 29, and his wife, Meenakshi Moorthy, 30, died in a fall from Taft Point in Yosemite.