"We were successful in giving that man his life back just as it was before he decided to go into the water. I'm just so proud to be associated with this group of men; they're all heroes."
Niagara Falls' Gary Carella spoke those words to me when I interviewed him about a 2003 rescue at the brink of the falls for the book "Buffalo Soul Lifters." He could just as easily have been speaking about the events that unfolded here on Wednesday afternoon.
It was just after 2 p.m. when a 30-year-old western Ontario man climbed over a retaining wall near Table Rock and entered the water above the Horseshoe Falls. Moments later, he was spotted floating naked, the force of the cataract having stripped him of his clothing, among large chunks of ice in the basin below the falls.
A daring rescue ensued. The man resisted attempts by firefighters on the shore to reach out to him with poles. Eventually, a skilled helicopter pilot was brought in and used the propellers of his aircraft to create wind drafts, pushing the man toward shore. There, a brave firefighter waded some 60 feet into the water, tethered by a rope, and was able to wrap his arms around the man's chest, so that his colleagues could pull the victim ashore.
A lot has been written about the event already -- most of it missing the mark completely. Scribes have dredged up the tales of the barrel-riders. Annie Edson Taylor's name has been bandied around like a shuttlecock at an Olympic badminton match. I'm sure my old friend Roger Woodward's phone has been ringing off the hook, as well.
Roger went over the falls in 1960, when he was just a young boy. His plunge was the result of a boating accident. He became the first person to survive going over the falls not housed inside a barrel or some other contraption.
Some University of Buffalo scientists have declared a desire to study what one local TV station breathlessly described as an event so rare that "the odds of someone surviving are astronomical."
Talk about hyperbole. It's estimated that approximately 40 people per year are killed when they are swept over Niagara Falls. Most are suicides, while a few are accidental.
Simple math would then tell us that 1,960 people have gone over in the years between Roger Woodward's plunge and today. Three, if you include the questionable claims of 2003 stunter Kirk Jones, have survived in that span. That means that the odds of going over Niagara Falls, sans barrel, and surviving are somewhere in the vicinity of 653 to 1.
Astronomical? Set up a lottery with that percentage of winners and see how many billions of dollars you rake in.
It is also important to note that the time frame beginning with Woodward's ordeal is the only one worth examining, as it almost perfectly coincides with the opening of the Robert Moses Hydroelectric Station. The power plant was under construction when young Roger went over and was completed shortly thereafter, opening on Jan. 28, 1961.
From that period on, a large amount of water, half or more of the natural flow over the falls, has been diverted into underground tunnels and sent to the hydroplant for generating electricity. The fact that there were no reported survivors in the century before man's interference with one of nature's greatest forces and there have been three in the nearly half-century since seems anything but coincidental.
They are odds of survival that no sane person would take. Of course, suicide is insanity personified. So it would seem the most important aspect of the story one would want to inspect is the "what now?" angle.
Put yourself in this guy's shoes -- if you can find them at the bottom of the Niagara River -- for a moment. You're standing at the top of the falls. You're despondent. Something -- marriage, money, job -- is terribly wrong in your life. You came with no clear plan, but the soothing rhythm of the cascading water speaks to your troubled mind in a language that only lost souls can understand. In an instant, you are over the railing and on your way to the water. Things are in slow motion. You think of the mistakes of your life, the people you hurt unintentionally and the moments you wish you could have back.
As you near the precipice you ask God for just one thing: Please don't let them hate me. Let them know it wasn't their fault. I just couldn't take the pain anymore.
As if falling into a cloud, your body is swept over into what you hope will be a peaceful, forgiving plane.
The next thing you know, you're in the lower river and you're alive. You're disoriented and cold -- cold beyond belief. You're not even aware the river has stripped your clothing. You fight off rescue attempts, probably because your mind simply cannot comprehend your immediate circumstances. Survival wasn't an item on the menu from which you ordered.
You wake up the next day in the hospital and begin a journey you hadn't considered possible, one filled with words you'd eschewed, words like "promise," "hope" and "tomorrow."
Again the question posed is, What now?
You've attempted suicide in a way that almost always succeeds, and yet you are very much alive. Taking therapy as a given, what's your next move? How do you pick up the pieces and reframe your existence?
Do you go back to the same job, the same relationship, the same circle of friends? People often speak of being "given a second chance." The phrase is almost never used as literally as it is applied to your life. So, what do you do now?
Starting with the symbolic tones of last Wednesday might be a good place to start. You entered the rapids above Niagara fully clothed and were offered up to the icy waters below in nothing but the skin granted you by God. In essence, the river re-birthed you to this world, complete with a natural baptism.
You can think of Wednesday, March 11, 2009 as your new birthday. Whatever haunted you in your old life has been washed away in the cleansing waters of the Niagara. Your slate is clean. Someone -- whether you choose to credit God, the angels or Mother Nature -- has seen fit to give you a Mulligan on the great (w)hole of life.
Roger Woodward has spent much of his adult life carving out time from his professional life to serve as a motivational speaker. He lets people know that what happened to him was an accident and he does not support daredevil acts at Niagara Falls. He feels fortunate to be the original "boy who lived." He encourages people to pursue their dreams and to give back to their communities.
Kirk Jones used his brief celebrity by taking on a number of sideshow-like jobs -- including being shot out of a cannon in a traveling circus.
Those are the bookend choices that stare you in the face as you lie in your hospital bed and contemplate your future. There are so many people both near and far who will stand at the precipice separating life and self-inflicted death that you traversed last week. You could choose to become a beacon to help lead their ships back to land.
As Gary Carella suggested, you've been given your life back just as it was before you decided to go into the water. So the question remains, What now?
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||March 17 2009|