As the current swept him towards the Niagara Falls, Roger Woodward accepted he was going to die. The seven-year-old had a last thought for his parents, his toys and his dog. Then he went over the edge and it felt as if he was floating on a cloud, with no sense of falling.
For Kirk Jones, a middle-aged misfit who intentionally swam into the falls, it was like “hell on earth,” as if he had been dropped down a giant tunnel and pounded by tons of swirling, raging water.
Aside from the daredevils who floated in barrels or other contraptions, only Mr. Woodward, Mr. Jones and a Canadian man in 2009 have survived a descent down the continent’s most powerful waterfalls.
The falls’ lethal powers were in the news again when a Japanese exchange student, Ayano Tokumasu, 19, fell to her death last Sunday after losing her balance as she stood on a railing. Her body was found on Thursday.
Police searching for her first found the body of a missing 41-year-old Hamilton-area man, not a surprising outcome, because about two dozen people commit suicide there each year.
Only a rare combination of luck and location explains how the three people who took an unprotected plunge came out alive, University at Buffalo physiology professor David Pendergast said.
All three plummeted down the 50-metre drop at the Horseshoe Falls, on the Canadian side of the river. “There’s almost no way you can get swept down the American Falls and not hit big rocks,” said Prof. Pendergast.
Some people say “water cones” pushed upward by air trapped at the bottom of the falls can cushion a person’s fall. Others believe that plunging near the banks spares a person from the pounding of the thousands of tons of water that tumble each minute over the falls.
The March, 2009, survivor landed in a slow-moving eddy rather than where an undertow would have pinned him beneath the surface.
The 30-year-old Ontarian resurfaced in near-freezing waters, stripped of his clothing by the torrent. His name was never disclosed because his fall was a suicide attempt.
Mr. Woodward’s case stands out because his fall was accidental.
In July, 1960, he was on vacation with his American parents when he and his 17-year-old sister, Deanne, went on a boat outing with an adult friend, James Honeycutt.
About 800 metres from the falls, the engine failed and the boat drifted downriver. Mr. Woodward had an adult-sized life jacket. Mr. Honeycutt gave the only other life jacket to Deanne just before the boat capsized.
Struggling to hold his head over the water, Mr. Woodward shouted at his sister, “Dee Dee, we’re going to die.”
“One minute I was sucked under the water, the next minute I was flung in the air like a toy and I would come down and slam against rocks,” he recalled. “It was brutal and punishing and very painful.”
Deanne managed to swim to the river bank and grab the fingers of a vacationing New Jersey state trooper.
The water was calmer near the falls, giving Mr. Woodward time to think about his impending death, his dog, Fritz, and his parents. He wondered what they would do with his toys.
On the shore, Deanne clasped her fingers over her chest and began praying for him.
Mr. Woodward went over. “I couldn’t determine up or down. I was in a fog. I had no sense of falling.”
Then he hit the bottom and things went dark. Suffering only bruises and cuts, he was rescued by the Maid of the Mist tour boat. Mr. Honeycutt didn’t survive.
Now 58 and a retired realtor, Mr. Woodward doesn’t shy from interviews but hasn’t sought the limelight, seeing himself as the victim of an accident in which a man sacrificed himself to save him and his sister.
Mr. Jones’s story is sadder. The Michigan man was 40, never married and jobless when he jumped into the falls in 2003 after steeling himself with vodka.
He first claimed that he acted because he was depressed. But police found he had enlisted a friend in a botched attempt to videotape his exploit. He was charged with mischief and illegally performing a stunt, fined $3,000 and barred from returning for a year.
He tried with little success to cash in on his fame, even joining a circus. But he didn’t sound too sanguine in the first days afterward, saying he had to fight for every bit of air as he went down.
“I was in the water for about eight seconds. I was immediately enveloped by what seemed like tons of water … It felt like a team of people were beating me with baseball bats,” he told Detroit’s WXYZ-TV station.
“There’s a bubbling cauldron of hell that I advise upon no human being on the face of the earth,” he told NBC.
“… It is hell on earth.”