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Coastal Community Searches For Answers After Series Of Deaths

Cape Kiwanda is an icon of the Oregon coast, but its jagged bluffs and towering dunes also tempt thrill-seekers to get too close to the edge.

A half-dozen young adults have drowned or fallen to their deaths at Cape Kiwanda in the past two years. Now, state officials and community residents are brainstorming ways to make the cape a safer place.

On a bright, sunny March morning on Cape Kiwanda, Jennifer Wright visited the place where her daughter spent her last moments alive.

"I'm sad for my loss, but I mean, gosh, if you had to choose, what a beautiful place to die," she said.

It was Wright's first time back to Cape Kiwanda since the frantic days last summer when her daughter, Ellie Dickey, went missing. She and her boyfriend, Sean Yamaguchi, came to the cape one July day. Their bodies were found two weeks later, washed up on the beach. 

Credit Chris Lehman / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Jennifer Wright holds a photo of her daughter, Ellie Dickey. The 18-year-old died at Cape Kiwanda in July, 2015.

Wright said she'll never know exactly how Ellie died, but it wouldn't surprise her at all if the 18-year-old had ignored the many signs in the area warning of danger.

"Kids just don't—they think they're invincible," she said. "And that was totally Ellie."

The warning signs are mounted on wooden fence posts. Metal wires run between them to make fences that are also easy to see— and easy to get under, over or around.

Six people have died at Cape Kiwanda since April 2014, and locals say accidental deaths have been regular occurrences here for generations.

Long-time local resident Marie Heimburg said she sees people crossing the fences all the time.

"They get up there, and I've seen them where they're all the way at the edge, but they don't realize that that's a ledge and it could just fall off," she said.

Heimburg said she bows her head whenever she hears the familiar sound of the Coast Guard helicopters on their way to try to pluck someone out of the water. 

"I pray for the people that are helping. I pray for the person that's in danger. It's just very sad," she said. "And it's constant."

First responders know all too well the dangers of Cape Kiwanda. Two volunteer firefighters were injured in February while searching for a 17-year-old girl from Marysville, Washington, who witness say slipped and fell into the ocean. Her body was never recovered. 

Heimburg and Wright went along on a recent tour of the cape with state and local officials.

Tillamook County Sheriff Andy Long pointed out places where people have died. Long said he sometimes ventures out to warn people of the danger.

Credit Chris Lehman / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network

"People talk back. They will not listen to you," he said. "They say, well it's not illegal to be out here."

Asked if the people who say that are right or wrong, Long responded: "Oh, they're right, they're right. It's not illegal to be out there. It's public land and these are warning signs here."

In other words, the signs are just a suggestion.

"The signs may be making it in some regards even more tempting," said Jenn Pfeifer, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, whose research is focused on adolescent decision-making.

Getting rid of warning signs probably isn't a realistic solution, Pfeifer said, but she likes the idea that many in the community have of adding information and even photos about the people who have died there.

"It might be seen as more relevant," she said. "It might get more attention and it might be able to shift behavior."

Jennifer Wright said she's open to any idea that might help people like her daughter stop and think twice before crossing the fence.

"Some people say you can't fix stupid. Ellie was not stupid. She's just fearless. But she did a stupid thing. And she paid the cost. And her whole family paid the cost."

Wright hopes other families won't have to pay the same cost due to risky behavior at Cape Kiwanda.