The Boy Who Plunged Over Niagara

By Lawrence Elliott

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The Boy Who Plunged Over Niagara 朗読

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Just after 8 p.m. on Saturday, July 9, 1960, James Honeycutt came off the night shift at a Niagara Falls hydro-electric project. Sleep, though, was not on his mind --- not on a fine summer morning with a trim new outboard motorboat tied to the dock at Lynch's Trailer Court, where he lived.

Honeycutt was 40, an affable man who had had to leave his family in Raleigh, N.C., when he'd gone north to work on the power project. He found the week-ends long and lonely. so, after breakfast, he drove to the home of Frank Woodward, one of the carpenters on his crew. Over coffee Honeycutt sprang his surprise; How would the Woodward youngsters, 17-year-old Deanne, and her 7-year-old brother, Roger, like to go for a boat ride?

Deanne, awed by the tumultuous river, which she had seen only once, was reluctant. But with little Roger jumping with glee, and her mother urging her to go along --- "You'll have a chance for a swim at Lynch's later --- Deanne changed into a bathing suit, and the three set out.

Soon Honeycutt was easing his green aluminum runabout away from the Lynch dock, his pride and inexperience both obvious in the cautious way he maneuvered clear of other boats around the landing. At midstream he turned the sleek 4¼-meter craft down-river and offered the tiller to Roger. His face grinning above the brilliant orange life jacket he wore, the boy took hold.

Deanne, in the bow, relaxed: if Mr. Honeycutt was confident enough to let Roger steer, what was she worried about? When they passed under the Grand Island Bridge, gateway to the American side of the falls, she waved gaily at the cars passing far overhead.

John R. Hayes, a trucker and special police officer on a holiday tour, had crossed the bridge an hour earlier. He and his wife had come to Niagara Falls for the week-end and now, like the thousands of other tourists, were snapping pictures and marveling at the incredible power of the famous cataracts.

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Past noon, they crossed the foot-bridge to Goat Island, which splits the Niagara into two sets of leaping rapids, its sheer northern end overlooking the awesome cleft into which both the American and the Horseshoe falls plunge. Down-river from the falls, so far below him that it looked like a toy in a bathtub, Hayes could see a vessel docked under the Canadian cliffs.

It was one of the two Maids of the Mist, ships that take turns cruising up into the "Shoe." There, within 45 meters of the wet-black rocks at the very foot of the Horse-shoe Falls, surrounded by wild-flying spray and deafened by the roar of the torrent, tourists come face to face with one of nature's great extravagances.

Now, at not quite 12:30, Capt. Clifford Keech, of Maid of the Mist II, was loading up for his seventh cruise of the day. From the wheelhouse he watched as Mate Murray Hartling collected tickets from the 65 passengers. Captain Keech couldn't know it, but what would soon be hailed as "the Miracle of Niagara" was in the making.

The Niagara River is, in effect, an ever-narrowing trough, draining the North American mid-continent. Plunging north with the overflow from Lake Erie and the three Great Lakes to the west, it drops a precipitous 99 meters in its 58-kilometer length, flings 3,117,787 liters of water a second over the 49-meter falls and swirls through the world's most treacherous rapids before spending its fury in the vastness of Lake Ontario.

Its violence has always attracted daredevils. In steel drums or padded barrels, at least seven stunters have gone over the Horseshoe. Only four survived. Suicides find in the falls the savage end they crave. Scarcely a month passes that one isn't whisked over the brink. Dashed to the rocks below, thrust into wild eddies and currents, their broken bodies have almost invariably been cast to the surface at the Maid of the Mist landing exactly four days later.

James Honeycutt, again at the tiller, seemed unconcerned as the little outboard, now 6½ kilometers downstream from Lynch's and only 1500 meters or thereabouts above the falls, came bouncing past the long breakwater that evens the river's flow. Deanne, though, was getting nervous. This was not the broad, friendly river they'd started out on. It was roiled, leaping turbulently along the pronounced downhill pitch, breaking white against glistening rocks. The thunder of pounding water grew louder in her ears.

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About this time, a Goat Island sight-seeing guide was telling a group of tourists that the control structure out on the river was the point beyond which nothing could keep being swept over the falls. One tourist gestured at the little green boat and said, "What about that?" The guide ran for a telephone. But it was already too late.

While the runabout almost abreast of Goat Island, Honeycutt finally brought the bow around. For one tenuous moment, the 7½-horsepower motor beat against the remorseless current, barely making headway. Then, with a piercing whine, it began to race futilely; the propeller pin had sheared.

As the boat swept downstream stern-first, Honeycutt lunged for the oars. Though he pulled frantically, he hardly slowed the boat's backward rush. He yelled to Deanne, "Put on the life jacket!"

The girl's fingers were stiff as she laced tight the boat's only other jacket. In the stern, face suddenly turned white, Roger called, "Deedee, I'm scared." He began stumbling toward her.

"No!" she screamed, terrified that he would tip them over. "Stay there, Roger! We'll be swimming at Lynch's soon." "No, we're going to drown!" he cried. But he sat down and, clinging to the thwart, began to sob quietly. They were in full rapids now, the water solid white and tearing them toward the falls. Smashing off a rock, then caught by a vicious rip, the stern flew straight up.

"Hang on!" Honeycutt cried out, but there was nothing to hang onto. He and \roger were thrown over Deanne's head. Then the water snatched at her. She grabbed for the overturned hull, but it slid from beneath her fingers.

Honeycutt grabbed Roger's arm, fighting to hold the boy's head out of the water. But the furious currents tore them apart. The rapids wrenched Roger down, spun him around. Then all at once he was free, thrust out over the edge of the falls, dropping through space.

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John Hayes saw the boat turn over. He and his wife had walking down the steps toward Terrapin Point, the railed tip of Goat Island that looks out over the lip of the Hoseshoe. "Look!" he shouted, and went racing for the river.

As he ran, he spied Deanne Woodward's vivid life jacket. He dashed upriver, past dozens of stunned tourists, trying to get closer to her. Above the roar of the cataract he heard her crying out for help. He leaned over the guard rail so she could see him.

"Here!" he called out. "Hey, girl! Swim over here!" Deanne saw him, but shook her head hopelessly. She was unable to make any real progress. "Try!" Hayes called. He ran downriver to get ahead of her, and leaned farther over the rail. "Try!"

The current was sweeping her inexorably closer to the falls' jagged rim. Hayes stretched his arm out, though the girl was still far beyond reach. Deanne was at the very edge of exhaustion. Her legs ached from being pounded against the rocks. "Help me!" she pleaded with Hayes, the thunder of death a bare six meters away. Quickly he climbed over the guard rail. He was only 30 centimeters above the rushing water, clinging to the rail with one hand. he cried out, "You got to try, hear? Try!"

The sharpness of his voice stirred a last, hidden resource in Deanne. Doggedly she buried her face in the water and pulled once more against its clutch. When she looked up again, Hayes was almost directly above her. Desperately she cast out as she went sweeping by --- and caught his thumb. Hayes's hand closed around hers.

His foot wedged behind the rail, the weight of the girl and the awful force of the rapids tearing on his fingers, Hayes thought they would both go over. He called for help. A man broke out of the cluster of spell-bound sightseers. Vaulting the rail, John A. Quattrochi, another tourist, leaned down and grabbed Deanne's wrist. For a long moment the three hung on, straining. Then the two men pulled the girl from the rushing water and lifted her over the guard rail.

Deanne Woodward had been just three meters from the falls, closer than anyone had ever come before being plucked to safety. As she lay on the ground, she grasped, "My brother! My brother's still in there. Please save him!" But Quattrochi had seen Roger go over the falls. Softly he said, "Say a prayer for your brother."

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Maid of the Mist II, its decks heaving, drenched by spray and surrounded by thunder, was almost to its turning point just below Horseshoe Falls. At the wheel Captain Keech peered into the chaos of white water. When, at 12:52, he spotted a bobbing orange object dead ahead, he craned forward in amazement. He barked into his ship-to-shore phone : "This is Keech. There's a kid in a life jacket floating around up here and --- maybe I'm crazy, but I think he's alive!"

Though Roger Woodward was indeed alive --- the first human being to survive a drop over Niagara Falls without elaborate protection --- his peril was not yet past. He was drifting close to the huge port of an Ontario hydro plant and might yet be dragged into the opening.

The Maid came about and bore down on the boy from upstream, using the full reverse power of both engines to hold a position against the driving current. From the starboard bow, Mate Hartling and deckhand Jack Hopkins threw a life preserver toward the tiny figure in the water. It fell short. They hauled it in and threw again. On the third try the life preserver bobbed to within an arm's length of the thrashing boy. He crawled up onto it. A moment later, Roger Woodward lay on the deck of the Maid, shivering under the blankets piled on him. "Please find my sister," he said. "She and Mr. Honeycutt fell in the water, too."

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An emergency launch, responding to Keech's call, searched the swirling caldron for half an hour, but found only the auxiliary gas tank, all that was ever recovered of Honeycutt's runabout.

Meanwhile, high up on Goat Island, hundreds had seen the boy in the orange life jacket pulled aboard the Maid of the Mist. "They've got your brother," Hayes told Deanne just before she was whisked off to the hospital. "I think he's okay." "Thank you, God," said the girl, and closed her eyes.

Roger was taken to a Canadian hospital, where an hour later his mother and father came to tell him that Deanne, too, had been rescued. In a few days both youngsters, incredibly uninjured except for superficial bruises, were released.

How did Roger Woodward survive ? River men reason that Roger's lightness held him atop the water's surge ; that as he was thrust over the brink, he flew along and down the crest as though going over a slide, thus avoiding the deadly rocks and turbulence at the falls' base. Though he had dropped 49 meters at an estimated 120 kilometers an hour, his life preserver had forced him back to the surface before he lost consciousness.

But the mighty falls did not go completely unappeased. On Wednesday, July 13, the body of James Honeycutt turned up at the Maid of the Mist landing. It was four days, almost to the hour, from the moment he was swept to his death.

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