Standing at the brink of Niagara Falls; Rescuers work to save man from final plunge

Posted: Sunday, July 06, 2003

Editor's Note: On the day that American forces crossed the border into Iraq, an unimaginable act of courage and endurance was unfolding half a world away in Niagara Falls, N.Y. In the rush of war news, the story was largely overlooked. We tell it now because acts of heroism should not go unrecognized.

NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. High above the mighty falls, where everything is a thunderous torrent and only the shrieks of the gulls pierce the roar, a man's cry for help is a hopelessly lonely act.

No one can hear it as it is swallowed in the fury, hurled into the wind and the mist, drowned by the river that thrusts hundreds of thousands of gallons per second into the gorge below.

A man doesn't seem to stand a chance here, trapped on the crest, peering into the depths that will surely become his grave.

And yet one icy evening last March, that is exactly where one man was stranded. Wearing a thin blue wind-breaker, he managed to wedge his legs beneath a rock moments before being swept over.

From the Canadian side, where people first spotted him, the scene was surreal a blue speck of humanity swaying in an eddy as the currents swirled around him and the river surged by at 20 miles an hour.

His knees were bent, his body hunched against the spray. Every few minutes he turned and looked down.

He was two feet from the brink.

The call came in just after 5 p.m. as State Park Police were wrapping up a coffee-and-cake retirement party for a veteran on his last day.

''Man on the ice at Terrapin Point.''

Sgt. Patrick Moriarty, head of the emergency rescue team, grabbed his jacket, yelled for the rescue truck, hopped in his cruiser and sped the short distance to the scene.

Terrapin Point named for rock formations resembling turtles that once dotted the area is a pretty ledge on Goat Island, where the park police office is based. It juts out over the American side of the Horseshoe Falls, which curve 2,200 feet between the United States and Canada. In summer, Terrapin Point is a favorite spot for tourists. Only a thin railing separates the crowds from the torrent, which drops 170 feet when it goes over the falls.

In winter, Terrapin Point is transformed into a treacherous embankment, a mountain of ice and snow that blankets everything the park, the railings, even the lampposts. The area is fenced off to tourists, but there are always a few daredevils who climb up for a better view.

Heading to the scene, Moriarty assumed he was about to rescue one of them.

This won't be so bad, he thought. His emergency rescue team had practiced an ice rescue on Terrapin Point just a week earlier, with Moriarty himself spread-eagled as the ''victim'' who had accidentally fallen on the ice.

But ice rescues on land are not remotely like those in the turbulent freezing waters of the Niagara rapids.

''He's in the water,'' yelled park police officer Brian Russell, who arrived moments before Moriarty. ''He's right on the edge.''

From the top of the embankment, Moriarty gasped. In 19 years of working for the park police, he'd never seen anything like it. The man was trapped about 250 feet from the shore, right at the edge of the falls. His hands were jammed into his pockets, his body in a crouched position as though trying to steady himself against the enormous weight of the water rushing past. The water wasn't deep: It only came up to his knees. But the current was savage, tugging and pulling and hungrily trying too drag him over. Every now and then he teetered, but he didn't fall.

What on earth was holding him there? How long could he last?

''He'll be swept over any minute or just die of the cold,'' Moriarty thought. ''We'll never get this guy.''

The water was 33 degrees Fahrenheit, although the air temperature was in the low 40s, relatively warm compared to the bitter freeze of the previous weeks. The river was an angry black mass, surging forward relentlessly, carrying great chunks of ice that had broken from the scrub islands in the rapids upriver.

Moriarty shuddered at the thought of how cold the water must feel. The pain must be excruciating.

''Hang on,'' Moriarty bellowed, waving at the victim. ''We're coming for you.''

There was no way the man could hear him, but he turned in the rescuers' direction, a forlorn, hopeless turn. He mouthed something.

''I'm so cold,'' he seemed to be saying. ''Please help me.''

Moriarty cringed as he surveyed the scene. Conditions couldn't be worse for a rescue. The embankment sloped steeply about 30 feet down to the falls. There was light snow on top, but the rest was sheer ice. If anyone slipped it would be like a toboggan ride straight into the falls.

At 46, Moriarty is a towering 6-foot-4, all square-jawed determination and sharp-eyed intensity, every inch a leader. ''Stretch'' he is nicknamed in the department, where co-workers joke that he grows taller every day.

For 15 years he has headed the emergency rescue team. He knows Niagara as well as anyone. He has waded into the rapids to pluck boaters trapped on the rocks, pulled fishers from the ice, cajoled suicides from a final plunge, carried injured hikers out of the gorge.

But usually the victims are farther upriver, where, though the water still crashes furiously over the rocks, there is not the same danger that trained rescuers, harnessed to safety ropes, will be swept away.

Moriarty has never pulled anyone from the brink. He's never seen anyone this close to the edge.

''Oh, brother,'' he said to Russell. ''This is going to be tough.''

Moriarty whipped out his cell phone and called the station. He asked the dispatcher to make three calls immediately: to Ontario Power Generation, which operates the dam that controls the flow of the water, to the Coast Guard asking for a rescue helicopter, and to the fire department asking for as many men as it could spare.

About five minutes passed. Other police officers arrived, lugging equipment, rope lines and carabiners, survival suits and a safety ring.

Moriarty started zipping up the thick orange neoprene suit that would protect him from the cold. Someone would have to be lowered into the water, and he had the most experience.

Others began laying out rope. Someone grabbed a bullhorn and bellowed to the man in the water.

''Hang on. We're coming to get you.''

But his words were drowned out by the falls.

John Jacoby arrived, joining Moriarty at the top of the embankment. Jacoby has been a battalion chief for 21 years and a firefighter for many more. At 51, he's seen everything the falls can deliver, including bodies dragged from the deep.

But he had never seen anything remotely like this before.

''God must be holding that guy in place,'' Jacoby exclaimed.

''The only thing holding him in place is fear,'' Moriarty replied.

Later, aerial photographs would show a thin fissure in the rock that cuts across the crest of the waterfall. The man had somehow jammed his feet into the crack. That precarious foothold was all that was separating him from eternity.

Dusk was falling, the temperature was dropping. It seemed impossible that the man could survive much longer. Jacoby knew they needed more manpower, but it would take up to eight minutes for another fire crew to arrive, and he didn't think they had that much time.

Firefighter Gary Carella had already suited up and was getting ready to be lowered into the water with Moriarty.

The biggest problem was where to ''tie off'' where to anchor the ropes that would be attached to the men. The only possible anchor was a treetop poking through the snow about 250 feet upriver.

They had no idea how sturdy it was. Was it just a branch or was it strong enough to bear the weight of the 20 or so men who would hold the lines harnessed to the rescuers?

They had no choice. Covering the tree with a protective nylon webbing, they attached the ropes and the steel rappelling clasp, known as a figure eight, that can halt an entire rope line in an instant.

Four rope lines were set up a main line and a backup safety line for each man, each about 250-feet long. Thick metal stabilizing rods were hammered into the ice. They would be useless if the ice broke, but rescuers couldn't afford to dwell on that now.

Jacoby ordered everyone on the ice to hook onto a rope line even the police chaplain. About 20 men took positions on the ropes, spread evenly over the ice, some near the tree that was their anchor, others farther down the slope. The ropes were attached to harnesses worn by Carella and Moriarty.

Carella is 39, an 11-year veteran of the fire department, and in every way the opposite of Moriarty small and wiry with huge brown eyes and an innocent-looking face. But Carella is tougher than he looks. He has participated in almost as many rescues as Moriarty. He knows the falls as well as anyone.

Carella was about to get married and his life had been a whirl of wedding preparations and plans. But right now he had only one thought: his rope.

''You tied it good, Bruce?'' he asked fire Capt. Bruce Andrews, nervously. ''Make sure you tie it good.''

If his harness was safe, he might get a little bashed up in the river, but at least he would feel secure knowing he could be hauled back at any time.

Twenty minutes had passed since the first rescuers arrived. The man in the water looked paralyzed with cold, but he was still standing, still bent against the spray.

Sliding down the ice, Moriarty and Carella hit the spongy, rocky floor of the river and immediately felt the pull. Weeds clawed at their feet. The current was trying to tear them from their lifelines. The spray bit hard into their faces.

But they didn't feel the cold. Just raw power.

The falls drowned out any conversation, so they relied on hand signals to communicate with each other, and with those on their lifelines above.

The man was craning to see them, yelling through the mist.

''HELP. I can't hold on much longer.''

Moriarty and Carella stumbled forward. They didn't have radios, so state park police Detective James Comfort, inching his way along the embankment above them, became their liaison with the men on their rope-lines.

Comfort wore hiking boots and an outdoor jacket. He was not attached to any gear; the safety harnesses and ropes were all being used by the men in the water. He wasn't really equipped to coordinate a rescue from an ice-covered slope above a raging waterfall.

Comfort knew he was pushing the limits in a way that rescuers never do. But there wasn't much choice. Someone had to be a contact for the men in the water.

Most of the rescuers have grown up in the Niagara area, lived and worked there for years. They know the history of the falls the lure as well as the lore.

From the famous Blondin whose death-defying exploits on the tight wire in 1859 drew thousands of onlookers, to Annie Taylor, a Michigan schoolteacher who successfully went over in a 160-pound oak barrel in 1901, assuming wrongly that she would reap great riches from her daring, there have always been those who tested themselves against the falls. Few have survived.

Police and firefighters trade stories about what they have witnessed and whom they have rescued. They remember dates and names. They even categorize them leapers, stunters, suicides (those who leave notes).

Rescuers in these parts have seen so much and heard so much, they don't question the reasons people wind up in the water. They just focus on trying to pull them out.

Creeping down the embankment, Comfort had flashbacks about the last time he was so close to someone clinging to life at the edge of the falls. It was several years ago: The man had climbed over the railing of the sightseeing platform above the Bridal Veil Falls, a smaller, but equally treacherous cataract on the American side.

Comfort is still haunted by the speed at which he vanished a speck in the foam, then nothing, as if he had never really existed.

The veteran police officer couldn't bear the thought that he was about to witness that again.

''Just hold on, just hold on, just hold on,'' he said under his breath, over and over, willing the man on the brink not to give up.

And then he spotted it, a small dark bundle lying on the ice.

There was a brown wallet and a dark baseball cap pierced through with a pen.

Stuck to the pen was a note.

The handwriting was neat. The message short.

''Please tell my parents I'm sorry.''

To be continued on Monday.

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