The Union Ship Canal in South Buffalo is a tempting swimming hole, especially on a hot summer evening.
The area, south of Tifft Street near Lackawanna, is pretty and secluded, in a parklike setting with bike and walking paths on both sides of the water. The canal current seems tame, and there’s no apparent undertow.
But there is one problem.
There’s no easy way to get out of the water if you are jumping from the pedestrian-bike bridge that spans the canal.
That’s why firefighters say the canal, where two teens drowned Thursday night, is not a safe place to swim. Alexis Matte, 16, of Buffalo, and Dondre Herring, 17, of Lackawanna, died after being pulled from the canal at about 8:15 p.m. on the Fourth of July.
In fact, “No Swimming” signs, in both English and Spanish, are posted on each side of the bridge. And the southern side of the canal has a small fence, about 4 feet high, although even a teenager wouldn’t have any trouble getting over it.
The canal does have three bright yellow ladders, two on the south side of the canal, one on the north side, but all are about 100 yards from the bridge, which is a popular jumping-off point.
One Buffalo firefighter stood on the bridge Friday and looked at one of the ladders about a football field away.
“That’s suicide,” the firefighter said, looking at the 10-foot-high canal walls. “I’m a good swimmer, and I would have trouble swimming to that ladder. I wouldn’t even attempt it.”
Another city worker who wouldn’t give his name stood on the bridge Friday and offered a safety suggestion: putting a life ring every 500 feet along the water, on each side.
Those life rings could have 100 to 200 feet of rope attached, and they could be put all along the city’s waterfront, this person added.
“In retrospect, it seems silly,” he said of not having such life-saving equipment. “What’s a life worth?”
But Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr., following a Friday afternoon news conference, questioned how feasible it would be to install such life-saving devices over some 15 miles of Buffalo waterfront.
The fire commissioner cited a larger issue: that of people not understanding the danger of swimming in posted and unsafe waters.
“Kids are very creative,” he told reporters. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Authorities on Friday were trying to piece together exactly what happened Thursday night in the canal, which is located about five miles south of downtown Buffalo in a former industrial area that’s been refurbished as an office park with a park in the middle.
The City of Buffalo has led the development of the canal area, but city spokesman Michael DeGeorge said he did not know if the city owns it.
“At this time, I’m not sure how they entered the water originally,” Whitfield said of the two teens. “They had been there for a while, and this was not their first entry into the water.”
Ron Delano, an eyewitness to the tragedy, saw only one of the two swimmers, but first thought it was just a typical scene with kids swimming in the canal. Until he looked more closely.
“I saw right away one kid was struggling, visibly struggling,” the South Buffalo man said. “I saw his head, and he was flapping his arms. He went under and came back up. I told my wife he didn’t seem to know what he was doing. Then I saw him go down again, and he didn’t come back up.”
One person dove into the canal to try to save the two teens – unsuccessfully. That person, who was not identified, didn’t have anything to hang onto until police later threw him a life ring.
Delano understands the lure of the water, even if it’s murky at the bottom.
“But I can’t see swimming where there’s almost no way to get out,” he added.
The canal, about 25 feet deep at the deepest point, is an inviting spot because it links to nearby Lackawanna neighborhoods via a small road, said Jose Rivera, 30, a Lackawanna resident.
Rivera often tells his two teenage children to stay away from the canal, because it is hard to climb out once a person gets in the water.
But, like the two teens who died, Rivera’s children sometimes go in anyway.
“On a day like this, what are children going to do?” he asked, standing at the canal’s edge. “If they’re seeking somewhere to cool off, this is the only place to do it.”
Rivera said there are few options for children to swim in a pool or play in a splash pad in Lackawanna. The outer harbor is visible from the ship canal but is largely obstructed by the elevated Route 5, and there are no swimmable beaches in that area.
The closest Lake Erie swimming area is in Woodlawn Beach State Park, more than five miles away.
Rivera has taken his children to Cazenovia Park in South Buffalo, which has an indoor pool and outdoor splash pad, or even as far as the YMCA in Orchard Park.
“They definitely are no longer permitted to go down here,” he said of the ship canal. “I told them wherever they want to go, I will drive them.”
Thursday’s tragedy occurred less than a month after Ellicott Council Member Darius G. Pridgen introduced legislation, later passed by the Common Council, to provide more public-service messages about the dangers of swimming in unauthorized swimming areas, especially for people between 11 and 25.
“Young people often look for that quick cool-off in unauthorized water,” Pridgen said Friday. “But unfortunately, that quick cool-off can be tragic.
“I think it’s very tempting to jump into what seems to be calm water,” he added. “The danger is you never know what is underneath the water.”
Friday also was a day for friends to mourn their loss.
Dondre attended Lackawanna High School, and he identified himself online as a member of the Lackawanna school chorus.
Rivera, the Lackawanna father, said his children knew Dondre as “a regular kid,” and a friend wrote on the Internet that Dondre was “a great friend.”
Alexis and Dondre posted numerous photos together on the Internet. In one, Dondre called Alexis “so beautiful.”
Shortly after noon Friday, a man who identified himself to reporters as Alexis’ father walked onto the bridge, with a male friend or relative, and stood there for more than 15 minutes, looking into the canal.
At one point, one of the men took a small bouquet of flowers and kissed it.
Then he threw the bouquet into the water.