A 17-year veteran and decorated state trooper, husband and father of three young daughters died Wednesday after falling about 30 feet during a training exercise in a gorge at Letchworth State Park in Wyoming County.
Trooper Ross M. Riley, 44, of the Olean area, who was a member of the State Police Special Operations Response Team (SORT), had rapelled about 70 feet down into the gorge to a ledge with two fellow SORT troopers about 11 a.m. The three advanced into the gorge during high-angle rescue training when, at some point, an untethered Riley fell from a ledge about 30 feet below into Wolf Creek.
“Trooper Riley sustained critical injuries to his head,” said Joseph A. D’Amico, State Police superintendent, who held a press conference with fellow members of the State Police Wednesday evening in Warsaw.
D’Amico said Riley was put on a stretcher and rushed by ambulance to Wyoming County Community Hospital, where he later died.
“Following this unfortunate tragedy, our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Trooper Ross Riley,” said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in a statement late Wednesday. “Trooper Riley was a devoted member of our State Police force, committed to protecting New Yorkers and ensuring their safety. His dedication to his work is commendable and his service, no doubt, touched the lives of many.
“The contributions he made as a member of the New York State Police will never be forgotten.”
Riley, who was assigned to the State Police’s Field Command, Emergency Management Section in Albany, was training with the Collins Center-based SORT-West unit.
Riley’s wife, Heidi Riley, is the station commander at the State Police barracks in Olean. They have three daughters, Abaigeal, 10; Katherine, 8; and Jillian, 3.
“My heart’s broken hearing that news. It’s heart-breaking there to know the circumstances of his death, being so young,” said Kevin Kailbourne, a zone sergeant at the Olean barracks when Riley and his wife were stationed there together. “He was a very likable, dedicated trooper and an outstanding family man. Him and her both, you couldn’t ask for two nicer people.”
Riley was a former U.S. Marine and veteran of the Persian Gulf War.
An Auburn native, Riley served in the Marines from 1987 until being honorably discharged in 1992. During his military service he was awarded several commendations, including the Good Conduct Medal, Overseas Service Ribbon and National Defense Medal.
“He served in the Marine Corps, but was accepted at Juilliard to study and play the trumpet,” said Capt. Steven A. Nigrelli, head of the local State Police troop’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation. “He would play taps at memorial services for us.”
Riley worked in Troops A, E and F – out of Batavia, Canandaigua and Middletown, respectively – and became a member of SORT, which was then named the Mobile Response Team, in 2000. He was with MRT at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, receiving a commendation for his service at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.
Riley was a member of the six-person team heralded by the 100 Club of Buffalo for helping to save a missing hunter in Zoar Valley Gorge in November 2010.
He was also credited with saving the life of a person who had suffered cardiac arrest at the Erie County Fair in 2008.
There, Riley, who is also a paramedic, responded with James R. Miller, a State Police communications specialist, to assist a State Lottery employee who suffered a heart-attack on Aug. 16, 2008. The men were working at the fair’s State Police exhibit when the incident occurred and performed CPR on the victim.
Riley also was involved in helping troopers off the job.
He participated in events for fallen Trooper Jill Mattice, a Cheektowaga native, who also died in the line-of-duty in a traffic accident several years ago and supported bicycle rides for 9/11 victims.
“He was the kind of guy you’d rely on when you needed somebody,” said Maj. Christopher Fiore, Riley’s commander in the Emergency Management Section.
Wednesday’s accident occurred near the Wolf Creek Picnic Area, two miles north of the Castile entrance to the state park.
D’Amico said investigators will investigate what caused Riley to fall.
He said the three who entered the gorge down the cliff side were being monitored from the top by seven other unit members at the time of the accident. The three in the gorge were performing the rescue of a life-size mannequin, the superintendent said.
“As they prepared to lift the stretcher is when Trooper Riley fell,” D’Amico said. “At this time, we don’t really know what caused Trooper Riley to fall. At the time of the fall, it appears he was not secured.”
It remained unclear why Riley was untethered or whether he slipped on wet or loose rocks. “We’re going to look at everything,” added D’Amico.
Kailbourne, reached at his seasonal home in Florida, said hearing news like Wednesday’s always hits hard, whether you are active or retired, because troopers are a close-knit family.
“It hurts everybody. We call it the ‘Long Gray Line,’ ” he said.
“When something like this happens, it affects everyone from Plattsburgh to Montauk Point and other police agencies too. They know it could be them.”
Funeral arrangements remained incomplete late Wednesday.
News Staff Reporters Lou Michel and Aaron Besecker contributed to this report.