Back from the brink: Rescuers defy all odds (part 3)

Posted: Tuesday, July 08, 2003

The story so far: An unidentified man has defied all odds and clung to a rock at the very brink of the falls for more than an hour. Rescuers on land have attempted to throw him a life line, but the current has been too powerful and kept whipping it back. A rescue helicopter nearly decapitated the man when it flew low with a swinging steel basket attached to a rope. The wind shear nearly toppled the helicopter. The pilots tried again, this time with a safety ring. But the wash from the rotors knocked the man over and he disappeared in the water. Astonishingly, he bobbed back up. His legs were dangling right over the brink of the falls.

NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. The torrent should have swallowed him long ago, hurling him over the falls and into the whirling depths like thousands of unfortunates who have lost lives here before.

And yet, after almost two hours, the unidentified man was still fighting for his life, dangling over the brink of the Horseshoe Falls.

Some onlookers turned their heads. Others muttered prayers. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that they were watching the end.

And then a shout went up, a cry of disbelief that washed over rescuers and the crowds that lined the Canadian shore.

In the mouth of the waterfall, the man was clawing back.

It didn't seem humanly possible, and yet there he was, hauling himself up the rocks, fighting the water with a brute strength born of fear.

''He's still there! He's back up!'' Art Litzinger screamed in the rescue helicopter.

Battered, drenched and terrified, the man was standing again, feet jammed back into the crevice that had held him above the falls all that time. His face was blue with cold.

Even the most hardened rescuers had never seen anything like it. Later, many would say they felt as if some supernatural force was keeping him alive.

But for how long?

Moments earlier the helicopter wash had knocked him over as rescuers tried to lower a safety ring from the air. The pilots knew they couldn't fly that close again.

''We have one more shot,'' the pilot, Capt. Kevin Caffery, yelled into his microphone. ''Just drop the ring.''

It was a shot in a million, and everyone knew it, that Litzinger would pick precisely the right moment to drop the ring, that it would float directly to the man, that rescuers would be able to drag him to shore.

The helicopter was roaring at full power. Caffery didn't dare think about the toll on the one engine, but he knew they couldn't stay airborne much longer.

Leaning out as far as he could, Litzinger tried to gauge the currents, to better position the ring. But he was so pummeled by wind and spray, it was impossible to see anything.

Blindly, he dropped the ring.

It bobbed and twisted, a swirl of orange in a sea of foam.

Terrified, the man lunged forward, a desperate last lunge.

''NO!'' Litzinger cried. ''NO.''

The ring swirled by the man's head just as the falls were pulling him over. His right hand shot up. It looped around the ring.

''Oh my God, he's got it,'' Litzinger screamed.

In the water, rescuers Sgt. Pat Moriarty and firefighter Gary Carella were screaming too.

''PULL! PULL! PULL!''

The men on the ropeline on shore pulled with all their might.

Everything happened so fast, it took a moment for Moriarty and Carella to realize the victim was no longer there.

''STOP!''

One moment he was being dragged toward the shore, clutching the ring. Next, the current had sucked him under a thick shelf of ice, directly overhanging the falls.

He was inches from being swept over, clinging to the ring that was now snagged beneath the ice. His face was half-submerged in the torrent, his body tossed about violently as the force of the water tried to pull him over. Once again his legs were dangling over the edge.

There was just a thin space, a foot or so, between the ice and the raging water. Every few seconds his face surfaced in the space, gasping for air.

Above, the rescuers on the rope line couldn't see a thing. The ice shelf was obscured beneath the embankment where they were positioned. When the man grabbed the ring, they were elated, assuming the rescue was over, that Moriarty and Carella would hook him to a rescue harness and any minute they would be pulling all three to safety.

In fact, Moriarty and Carella were fighting for their lives.

Their first instinct had been to dive forward as soon as the victim shot under the ice. But the men on the ropes held tight, terrified of giving them any more slack, afraid they would all go over.

''MORE ROPE,'' Moriarty and Carella had both yelled. ''MORE ROPE!''

With a little extra rope, Moriarty let the current drag him to the ice shelf, where he started punching a hole in the ice with his fist. His hands felt numb and useless inside their thick gloves, but he managed to grab four fingers of the man's hand.

The victim's face was blue. His weight was starting to pull Moriarty under too.

''PUSH!'' Moriarty yelled. ''Push with your feet. You have to help us.''

''I can't.'' The man was choking on the water surging over his head. He was drowning before their eyes.

''Let me go,'' he gasped. ''Don't kill yourselves, too.''

''You're not going now,'' Carella screamed, pushing in from behind Moriarty and diving under the ice. In the freezing, raging water, he grabbed the man's coat, and wrestled his legs around the man's torso. The current had both of them in its grip now, and was sucking them over. They could barely breathe, but Moriarty clung to the man's fingers and Carella clung to his jacket, fighting to twist a safety harness around his shoulders. Somehow he latched the two of them together.

Carella's face burst up through the water.

''I've got him,'' he sputtered at Moriarty. ''Let go, I've got him.''

Moriarty let go and pushed back from under the ice.

''Pull,'' he yelled to the rescuers above, waving with both hands. ''PULL!''

No one could believe it as the two bodies shot up the embankment, the victim cradled in the arms of the firefighter.

Other rescuers rushed down the slope. Within seconds the man was being bundled into a warm suit on a stretcher.

''I'm so sorry,'' he muttered. Then he passed out.

Niagara is not the world's biggest river and there are certainly mightier falls. But it has always been a magnet for the daring and the desperate.

Police estimate that there is an average of one suicide a month at the falls, although they don't have exact numbers. And for every successful suicide, they say, many more people have second thoughts.

Few get second chances.

Because he left a suicide note, the man was immediately placed in psychiatric care, his name not released by police. However, in the Niagara region, his identify is an open secret a 48-year-old accountant with a gambling problem. That day, according to investigators, he had lost a large sum of money in the newly opened Seneca Nation Casino on the U.S. side of the falls. Police said he was already more than $600,000 in debt to Casino Niagara on the Canadian side.

He and his family declined several requests to be interviewed for this story.

But the legacy of the man on the brink endures. Many of the rescuers say they would like to meet him, shake his hand, praise him for his endurance.

They use amateur videotapes of his rescue in training sessions now. Even though they watch them over and over, there is something unreal about his feat and about their own.

''God was with us in the water that day,'' Carella says.

In the hospital, where he was treated for hypothermia and shock, the man sat up an hour after he arrived and talked to investigators.

He told them that he had been overcome by despair after losing thousands of dollars borrowed from his father. Hopeless, he wandered over to Terrapin Point, scribbled a note, and slid down the ice into the falls.

He was totally unprepared for the shock of the cold, for the power of the current, for the overwhelming feeling that he wasn't ready to die.

He thought of his parents and the pain his death would cause them.

And so, when he felt the crack in the rock as the rapids pulled him over, he jammed in his feet and held on for dear life.

In the hospital, he was tearful and remorseful and thankful.

He swore he had been changed for life.

''I'm sorry,'' the man on the brink kept saying. ''I don't know what in the world I would do if someone had lost their life for me.''

Rescuers say that is all the thanks they need.



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