By Eric Francis
QUECHEE– A Hartland man jumped to his death in the Quechee Gorge on the morning of the Fourth of July, forcing the Hartford fire and police departments to shut down the popular tourist attraction for most of the morning while his body was recovered.
Derek Cooper, 21, a 2008 graduate of Woodstock Union High School, did not leave a note and had not given any prior indications that he might have been despondent, according to investigators who worked on the case.
A passerby witnessed Cooper jump at about 9:22 a.m. Monday morning and immediately notified authorities who responded to the bridge on Route 4 and used crime scene tape to close off the sidewalks that thousands of tourists use each year to view the scenic attraction.
Reporters from the Vermont Standard had driven over the gorge approximately 15 minutes before Cooper jumped, noticed him standing there alone, and had taken a good enough look at him to recall that he had been wearing a black t-shirt, dark pants, and flip-flops with a distinctive black band on them; however, at the time he was leaning casually on the rail looking out over the south side of the bridge and there was nothing unusual about his appearance to suggest he was doing anything other than enjoying the landscape on the bright holiday morning.
Cooper was one of the youngest members of the Hartland Volunteer Fire Department, having joined it in late 2007 as an Explorer Scout while still a sophomore in high school and serving on it in recent years alongside his twin brother.
Chief John Sanders said that news of the circumstances of Cooper’s death came as a blow to everyone on Hartland Fire and Hartland Rescue.
“We’re devastated,” Sanders said on Tuesday, “You couldn’t ask for a better guy. Derek was committed, enthusiastic, dedicated – everything that a young firefighter is and more.”
Hartland’s emergency personnel scheduled a “critical incident stress debriefing” on Wednesday evening at Damon Hall in order to give their members a chance to vent feelings in private and talk over the situation together with the help of a grief counselor. Usually such meetings are scheduled after first responders find themselves in a situation where someone they were called upon to help has died. “We decided it was needed because people were having such a hard time today,” the chief explained.
This article first appeared in the July 8th print edition of the Vermont Standard.