The story so far: Emergency rescue calls come all the time at Niagara Falls, long a magnet for daredevils and suicides. But police had never seen anything like this a man trapped at the very brink, his feet wedged beneath a rock, his body swaying in the mist as the thunderous current tried to pull him over. It happened last March. Rescuers were certain that the torrent or the cold would finish him off in minutes. And yet he hung on, as rescuers lowered two of their own into the raging rapids to try and help him. One false move, and everyone would perish.
NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. Even after 15 years of flying rescue missions here, a call to the falls gives helicopter pilot Kevin Caffery chills.
''Oh my God, Artie,'' Caffery gasped to his partner in the cockpit. ''Look at where he is.''
In the gathering dusk, the sight was almost otherworldly, a tiny dark figure, swaying in the maelstrom, trapped on the very brink of the Horseshoe Falls. Beneath him, and all around, thundered water, hundreds of thousands of gallons, white and foaming, hurtling over the cataract and crashing into the Niagara river 170 feet below.
''How the heck are we going to get this guy?'' Art Litzinger shouted into his microphone.
Caffery, a captain with the Erie County Sheriff's Department, shook his head.
Far below, the pilots could make out two roped rescuers, state park police Sgt. Patrick Moriarty and firefighter Gary Carella, edging through the water toward the victim. They were hugging the bank, trying to fight the rapids. Above them, fanned out across a steep ice embankment, the pilots could see the silhouettes of other rescuers clinging to their safety ropes.
They were anchored to a treetop, a flimsy precaution against the power of the waterfall. One slip and all could perish.
The man had been in the water more than an hour, his feet jammed into a crevice in the rock. By now, throngs of onlookers lined the Canadian shore, craning over the railings of Table Rock Park peering from the windows of the high-rise tourist hotels.
All eyes latched hopefully onto the helicopter, its red navigation light a beacon in the mist.
But the pilots didn't feel hopeful, just powerless.
For a helicopter pilot, everything about Niagara is unforgiving, from the blinding mist to the ferocious and wildly unpredictable updrafts that burst from the brink, threatening to flip the craft over in an instant.
Caffery and Litzinger fly hundreds of search-and-rescue missions a year. They are used to landing in all sorts of spots, plucking all sorts of victims from danger. In March alone they rescued eight people in separate incidents, in one case landing on a sheet of ice that was floating down the rapids carrying two stranded ice fishers.
In 2001 Caffery won the prestigious Carnegie heroism medal for landing the helicopter on a submerged rock to save a woman stranded in the rapids.
At 54, Caffery is calm and unruffled, always sure of himself and his mission. His biggest concern, aside from the conditions, was equipment.
Their ''ship'' as they call their white, single-engine Hughes 500, was a 35-year-old military surplus craft that had its heyday in Vietnam. It was old and small and light maybe too light for the pounding it was about to take. Caffery also worried about their rescue gear a steel rescue basket attached to a 30-foot rope. They would have to fly awfully close to the falls to get the basket to the victim.
But they had to try. The helicopter edged toward the falls, easing lower, closer.
Suddenly, it was too close. The man in the water nearly toppled in the wash from the blades.
Wind shear bounced the helicopter about. The mist was blinding. Caffery fought to steady the craft. He flew two low swoops before heading back to shore.
''We're coming back for you,'' Litzinger yelled, pushing his hands against the cockpit window in a thumbs up sign.
For a second the two men locked eyes. Litzinger will never forget his look.
''He thinks it's just too dangerous and we've abandoned him,'' Litzinger cried.
In the water, Moriarty and Carella strained against their ropes. They were close enough to get a good look at the man now, although they still knew nothing about him. He was sturdy looking, with dark features, dark hair and a mustache.
Later, they would learn that he was 48, that he had waded into the river despondent over hundreds of thousands of dollars in gambling debts to casinos on both sides of the falls, that he lived with his elderly parents in Buffalo.
For now, they just knew him as the man on the brink.
And they were losing hope.
The power companies had responded immediately, lowering the river by about eight inches by diverting water through their power plants about a mile and a half from the falls.
But it takes time for the effects to be felt at the crest, where the water was already at its lower winter volume of 315,000 gallons per second. In summer, mainly for aesthetics and for tourists, the level is raised to 675,000 gallons per second.
Waves were crashing around the man's legs, but his body, though drenched, was not submerged. Otherwise they would have lost him to hypothermia long ago.
''I'm so cold,'' he kept crying. ''What have I done? What have I done?''
''Hang in there,'' Moriarty shouted, trying to sound confident and strong.
But it was clear the man was giving up.
At one point, he checked his watch. He craned his neck and gazed down into the gorge, a long, agonized stare. Then he turned back to the rescuers with a kind of resigned shrug.
''He's making peace with things,'' thought fire Capt. Bruce Andrews on the rope line. ''He knows he's out of time.''
Moriarty and Carella pushed forward. They reached a wall of ice, jutting from the shore and tried to wade around, but the current was too strong. The men on the ropes could feel its pull.
An ice pick was lowered by rope and Moriarty started hacking. But the wall was too thick and they didn't have the time. He gestured wildly at Detective James Comfort on the bank above.
''Pull us up,'' he yelled.
''PULL.'' The call went out. The ropes tightened, everyone hauled, and Moriarty and Carella were jerked up over the ice. They clambered over the ice wall and slid down the other side, back into the rapids.
They were only 25 feet from the victim.
But the current between them was furious, whirling back toward the shore. There was no way they could wade out to him.
Moriarty tried to throw a life ring but it kept spinning around and then shooting under an ice shelf overhanging the falls.
Carella's hands were numb inside their gloves.
''Even if we get the ring to him,'' he thought. ''There is no way he will have the strength to hold it.''
From the embankment, Comfort yelled that someone thought his name was Pat.
''Hey I'm Pat, too. Hang on, Pat,'' Moriarty shouted. ''We'll get you, Pat.''
Even through the spray they could see the man's furious reaction. He started screaming hysterically. ''My name is NOT Pat.''
Moriarty grinned. This guy was unbelievable.
''What is your name?''
''My name is Michael.''
''OK, Michael. Just hold on. We're going to get you.''
The helicopter was in the air again, its doors unhinged, the steel safety basket swinging wildly underneath.
Litzinger bounced around in the back, lying on his stomach, leaning out the left side. He was Caffery's eyes and ears, talking the pilot into position and then guiding the basket to the man on the brink.
In the cockpit, Caffery couldn't see the man or the basket. His sole focus was the controls. His hands gripped the joysticks that control speed and altitude and power, his feet worked the pedals that control the tail rotors.
The helicopter pitched and lurched, straining at full power. The cockpit window was lashed with spray.
''To the left,'' Litzinger cried. ''Higher. A few feet higher.''
The basket swung low, skimming the water. From the shore it looked as if it might decapitate the man. ''Too low,'' Litzinger screamed. ''Higher, HIGHER!''
Caffery pulled hard on the joystick, and the helicopter veered over the man's head. The rotor blades were screaming, the pontoons shuddering.
On the bank, rescuers held their breath. It was clear that the helicopter was straining at full power, that it had nothing left. Even if the guy caught the basket, his weight might be enough to pull the helicopter over.
Caffery flew down one more time.
''Closer, another five feet,'' Litzinger yelled, hanging out the side.
Caffery's hands were bleeding from pulling so hard.
''We don't have the power,'' Caffery shouted into his microphone. ''We have to abort. ABORT.''
''Don't leave me!'' the man screamed.
''Artie,'' Caffery said, as the helicopter pulled away. ''This guy's a goner.''
Rescuers were running out of options. They needed a new plan fast.
They decided to attach two lines to the rescue ring, one hooked to the shore, the other to the helicopter. The pilots would lower the ring in the hope that the man in the water could catch it and rescuers could drag him ashore.
But there was no way to convey this to the victim.
''I can't hold on much longer,'' he cried. ''Help me.''
In minutes, the helicopter was back, the orange ring swinging next to the pontoons.
Litzinger leaned out as far as he could, spray hammering his face. He was staring straight into the abyss.
The man covered his face with his hands. He stumbled. The wash from the helicopter was churning up waves that lashed against him. He was losing his foothold.
The ring was directly over his head. But the gusts were too strong. He fell face first, disappearing into the water.
''No!'' Litzinger screamed.
''Oh my God, he's gone,'' Comfort yelled from the shore.
Moriarty lunged forward but the men on his rope held him back.
Carella closed his eyes. He couldn't bear to look.
In the air, Caffery and Litzinger watched the blue speck of his jacket disappear.
Then suddenly it bobbed back up. He was still clinging to something.
His legs were dangling right over the falls.
To be continued on Tuesday.
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