By Rick Pfeiffer rick.pfeiffer@niagara-gazette
Niagara Gazette — The evening of July 6 was a rough one for New York State Park Police.
First, they responded to the lower Niagara River gorge, near Devil’s Hole, after a young man slipped into the fast rushing water there.
As officers frantically searched for the man, they received another call to “expedite” to Prospect Point, where a woman was standing in the water at the brink of the falls.
But in between those two calls, the police radio crackled with another crisis. A jet skier had been sighted riding his personal watercraft into the Danger Zone leading into the upper river rapids.
“The call was for a jet skier approaching Goat Island. Our guys were in a difficult situation,” Park Police Lt. Patrick Moriarty said. “They were torn by their responsibility to the victim (in the lower river gorge) who might have still been alive and in need of rescue and the jet skier. Our guys couldn’t respond to the jet ski.”
An Erie County Sheriff’s Department helicopter, which was assisting Park Police in searching the lower river, peeled away and went to look for the jet skier. Moriarty said that neither the watercraft nor its rider were located.
But that didn’t diminish the danger the jet skier faced.
“If seaweed or some other debris had gotten sucked into the (jet ski) motor, (the rider) would have been adrift and heading into the rapids,” Moriarty said. “There’s a reason why it’s called the Danger Zone.”
The Danger Zone is a federally designed no boating area that begins in the upper Niagara River about 3.2 miles from the brink of the falls. Roughly one-third of the zone is a massive reef where the water level can fall to as little as 6 inches.
Motorists driving down the Robert Moses Parkway might look out at the river and see what appear to be large logs floating in the middle of it. Those logs are actually laying on the reef.
“A lot of times, boats enter the zone and they hit that reef,” Moriarty said, “they shear off the props on their outboard motors and now they’re in serious trouble because if they don’t get hung up on the reef, the current will take them straight to the brink of the falls.”
But getting stuck on the reef can be one of the better outcomes of entering the Danger Zone. Boaters will end up just sitting there, waiting for a rescue by the Park Police or Coast Guard, using boats that are specially designed to handle the dangerous waters inside and around the reef.
“The old-timers say that God put that reef there for drunks and fools,” Moriarty said. “(Getting caught on the reef) has saved a lot of people.”
When boats lose their motors and don’t get caught on the reef, the danger escalates. Moriarty recalls an incident when a boater lost his props on the reef and drifted all the way to Goat Island before rescuers were able to throw him a rope and pull him to shore.
““He was extremely lucky that we were able to get that rope to him,” Moriarty said. “Otherwise, he would have gone over the falls.”
U.S. Coast Guard officials share in both the Park Police concerns and in warning boaters about their responsibilities on the water.
“You have to know the area you’re going to be operating in,” Coast Guard Chief Dennis O’Connell said. “You should always be wearing a life jacket and have a means of communication on-board your vessel. And when it comes to the Danger Zone, pay attention to the buoy chain.
In addition to a large sign on the American shoreline, near the water intakes, that warms of the Danger Zone, a line of buoys the stretches from one side of the river to the other also designates the area. The white buoys are marked with a red diamond, the universal boating sign for danger.
“Education (for boaters) is the biggest thing,” O’Connell said. “They need to have charts and know how to read them, they need the proper gear and they need to respect restricted areas.”
The Park Police also rely on assistance from Ontario Power Generation, which operates the series of locks and dams just above the falls, should folks get too far into the Danger Zone.
“We regulate the water going over the falls and the water upstream of our control dams,” OPG Manager Peter Kowalski said. “My guys monitor the water and if they see a person in the non-navigation zone, we contact the appropriate authorities.”
Ontario Power can also lower water levels if Park Police and Falls firefighters need to enter the rapids to make a rescue.
“We can alter the flow and currents for the first responders,” Kowalski said. “We can also change the gates and draw water to the Canadian side. But you don’t like to have to see them go out there. It puts (the rescuers) in peril.”
Moriarty said he is always amazed when experienced boaters test their luck by venturing into the Danger Zone.
“On Father’s Day, we had a guy, local boater so he knew where he was, and he went all the way to Tower Island. We call that going past the point of no return,” Moriarty said. “If he hadn’t had an oversized motor, he would have never been able to turn around and get back. When we asked him what he was doing, he said he just wanted to see what was there.”
Yet other experience boaters have sage advice about traveling on the upper river,
“A lot of experienced boaters will tell you they don;t go past the Grand Island bridge,” Moriarty said. “If you get to the water intakes, that should be a clue, you’ve gone to far and its time to turn around.”