The close of the holiday weekend brought more tragedy to Western New York waterways with the presumed drowning of two people near Niagara Falls – bringing to six the number of people who have died in local waterways over the past five weeks.
The search continued late Sunday for the two people who fell into the Niagara River on Saturday. The first, a 23-year-old Amherst man, was hiking with friends at Whirlpool State Park when he fell into the water near the Niagara Whirlpool in the Lower Niagara River.
New York State Parks Police searched for the man until 9:40 p.m. Saturday, when they had to suspend those efforts for the night and turn their attention to looking for a woman who reportedly went over the American falls at Prospect Point.
Officials still hadn’t identified or found either person as of Sunday afternoon. If they are found to have died, they would be the fifth and sixth to be claimed by Western New York’s waters since June 3. Five of the six cases have happened since Thursday.
On June 3, Mustafa Ismail, 17, of Buffalo, drowned in the act of saving his younger sister in the Niagara River off Squaw Island.
Thursday night, two youths – Alexis Matte, 16, of Buffalo, and Dondre Herring, 17, of Lackawanna – drowned in South Buffalo’s Union Ship Canal after swimming there.
And early Saturday afternoon, Jan Carlos Delosantos-Nunez, 17, of Jamestown, was found underwater in Lake Erie near Monroe Marina in the Chautauqua County town of Westfield.
Lt. Clyde Doty of the Parks Police said the two missing people near Niagara Falls would be in the same area of the Lower Niagara River. The woman who fell over the waterfall “more than likely” is not still alive, according to Doty, but the search was still under way for both.
Doty said people continue to enter the water despite the efforts of the Parks Police. He couldn’t explain why.
“You gotta wonder,” he said. “We get a lot of people that still enter the water in the upper area here at Niagara Falls. We have tourists and local residents in the gorge that still enter the water. We try to discourage them and issue warnings and evictions and post signs and place charges if needed. But it continues to happen.”
The missing woman is thought to have entered the Upper Niagara River at Prospect Point, located on the east side of the river above the American falls. It’s there that visitors can walk up to a guardrail, about three or four feet high, and get up close to the water right before it barrels over the massive drop.
The waterfall isn’t visible from right there; rather, the water simply ends, forming a horizon as it falls into the abyss. Climbing the rail and entering the water would be an easy feat, and there were no signs nearby on Sunday to discourage anyone from doing so.
But William Buckner, of Texas, said visitors shouldn’t need warnings to realize that entering the water there is dangerous. He was visiting the falls for the first time with his son, Chase Buckner, who lives in Louisiana. As they stood at Prospect Point and watched the water approach the cliff, William said, “We ain’t never been here, but I know not to climb this rail.”
Gary Tahir, of Oakville, Ont., was visiting Prospect Point with his family. He acknowledged that it wouldn’t hurt if authorities put a few more signs up, but he was against a larger barrier that would block people from the water, saying any such thing would “ruin it” for him and everyone else who came to view the falls.
“People are going to do dumb things all the time,” Tahir said.
After the water lands in the Lower Niagara at the bottom of the Falls, it continues to flow north. When it arrives at an inlet on the west side of the river, the water is redirected northeast, forming a whirlpool with wild rapids and depths of up to 125 feet.
Visitors can get close to the whirlpool by hiking down the Niagara Gorge in Whirlpool State Park, about three miles north of the American falls. Signs warn people to stay out of the water, but they are not always heeded.
“I noticed them, but I didn’t read them,” said Jason Griggs of Tampa, Fla., who was hiking the gorge alongside his wife, with his baby daughter strapped to his back. “I didn’t pay attention to them.”
Griggs added that he “got the gist” upon seeing the signs that he shouldn’t enter the water. He was opposed to adding more signs – he thinks there should be less.
“I’m more of a naturalist,” he said.
A Cheektowaga man named Don, who declined to give his last name, said he does a 5.4-mile hike at the Gorge five times per week.
“I do tell people when I see them to be careful,” he said.
He said he can understand why people creep out on the rocks and tempt the river’s waters – it’s a great photo opportunity, with the rapids of the whirlpool crashing into the air behind you.
“One missed step, and then it’s a tragedy,” he said.
At the Union Ship Canal, near the Lackawanna border in South Buffalo, signs warn visitors to stay out of the water. That, however, doesn’t stop people, especially youngsters looking to beat the sun on a hot day, from disobeying orders. A footbridge there is a popular spot to jump from, but there is no easy way out of the water nearby.
Garnell W. Whitfield Jr., the Buffalo fire commissioner, told reporters Friday that many people don’t understand the possible consequences of swimming in posted and unsafe waters. The water in the Union Ship Canal is 25 feet deep in some spots, and the walls on the side are 10 feet high.
In the June 3 Squaw Island tragedy, Ismail was kicking a ball with his siblings on the island when his 7-year-old sister slipped into the water. He jumped into the river and threw her to shore, but he soon became caught up in the current and struggled to swim.
He was found at the bottom of the river, in a spot where the depth abruptly changes from 8 feet to 20 feet. A police officer at the scene told reporters that many people underestimate the strength of the current, calling it “terrible.”
In the Chautauqua County drowning, police also cited a strong undercurrent near the breakwall where Delosantos-Nunez went in. Witnesses saw him struggling in the water before he went under.
Doty agreed about the deceiving nature of the currents. He said the water near Niagara Falls is “dangerous and unforgiving” and told people to stay out of it.
“Visit the park, enjoy yourself, have fun,” he said. “But when there’s a fence, don’t climb the fence to get a better view. Don’t enter the water at any point. Stay out of the water. Common sense should prevail.”