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LEWISTON - Three teenage passengers fell out of a Whirlpool Jet Boat ride and into the turbulent water of the lower Niagara River rapids earlier this week, but owner John Kinney stressed Wednesday that quick action from crew members prevented the incident from being more serious.
A Niagara County man took the tour out of Lewiston at 4 p.m. Monday with his sister, also of Niagara County. He called the incident shocking as he realized his 15-year-old sister, who had been sitting next to him in the second row, had been pulled into the water.
"The waves broke upon the boat as usual. However, instead of just a few splashes, it was filling up an alarming rate. I turned to my sister, and both of us were gasping out of sheer surprise at how different this was as compared to previous runs in the tour. Suddenly the front of the boat filled up with water, and the front rows were completely underwater," said the man, who asked that he not be identified. "I reached out and felt that there was no one next to me. This caused quite a panic and it felt as if the boat was not going to rise back to the surface." He noted that a woman in the front was also screaming that her son was gone.
The man said in an email to The Buffalo News that the boat captain had to turn the boat around to rescue the three. He said it seemed to him that it took as long as 10 minutes for someone to throw them a line and pull them back into the boat with the assistance of other passengers.
Kinney said the information he had said that the three were rescued in less than a minute by crews on the boat who are trained in swift water rescues. An ambulance was called to the dock to check the riders, but no injuries were reported.
"There is no doubt that their impression is different than ours," he said of the incident. "I never want to minimize the apprehension that these guests had by finding themselves in the Niagara River, but all the procedures and protocols worked as they were supposed to, and the good news was that everyone was back in the boat in about 30 seconds."
The man who wrote to The News said he felt at the time that the boat was sinking and had gotten the impression that something had gone terribly wrong. He wrote that he was angry that no one would provide them with paperwork, such as incident reports or the video of their ride.
Kinney noted that his boats have taken 1.5 million passengers through the ride in the Niagara Gorge in the past 35 years and never had a problem.
Both the Lewiston Police Department and U.S. Coast Guard received reports of the incident but were not involved in the rescue. A spokesman at the Buffalo Sector of the U.S. Coast Guard said the case was turned over to the Transportation and Safety Board in Canada because the boat ride is a Canadian business and the incident occurred in Canadian waters.
Kinney said the company communicated the incident with Canadian authorities.
Whirlpool Jet Boat crews have assisted a number of times with search and rescues in the lower Niagara River and have been honored for their lifesaving rescues.
"The whole theme at Whirlpool Jet Boat is that when a person has the right life jacket and it is properly on and adjusted, their safety around the water is virtually assured and we have complete diligence," Kinney said. "Everybody in the boating business knows that people can end up in the water and that's why life jackets are so important to us."
The Whirlpool Jet Boat operates its ride in Lewiston and at two sites in Canada, in Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake.

email: nfischer@buffnews.com