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March 12, 2009 10:50 am

Published: March 12, 2009 12:01 am   

FALLS PLUNGE: Man rescued after surviving jump over Horseshoe

By Corey Larocque
Niagara Falls Review

Firefighters have to be ready for anything, but a polar-bear dip into the icy water at the base of Niagara Falls is a unique challenge.

“That’s my first ice-water rescue — outside of training,” said Todd Brunning, the 34-year-old firefighter who jumped into the Niagara River and swam out to save a man who witnesses said went over the Horseshoe Falls and lived.

After surviving the 170-foot plunge over the Horseshoe Falls, the unidentified man swam in the icy water of the Niagara River for about 30 minutes while rescuers raced against the clock to get him out.

“If it had gone on a couple minutes more, he would have sunk beneath the water,” said Niagara Parks Police Sgt. Chris Gallagher.

It wasn’t clear whether it was a stunt or a suicide attempt.

Police, firefighters, paramedics and a private helicopter pilot worked for about 45 minutes to save the man who went into the water above the falls but stayed afloat in the lower river. He clung to a log at times, and was swimming in the near-freezing water while rescuers prepared on shore.

He was listed in critical condition Wednesday night. He was transferred to Hamilton General Hospital, after having initially been taken to Greater Niagara General Hospital. He was treated for hypothermia and head trauma.

Niagara Parks Police were called to the river at 2:11 p.m., after a tourist saw a man climb over the wall south of Table Rock House. Police believe him to be in his late 30s but don’t know much about him because he was naked and semi-conscious when he was rescued.

Police said the man was dressed when he went into the water, but the force of the rushing water could strip the clothes off someone.

“He voluntarily entered the water and refused assistance at the bottom. Whatever conclusion you want to draw from that,” parks police Chief Doug Kane said.

When police located the man, he had drifted downriver from the falls toward the Maid of the Mist landing, approximately 1,500 feet from the falls.

A current brought him back upriver even with an old hydroelectricity generator in the Niagara gorge, half way between the Horseshoe and American falls.

The man was about 30 feet from the shore, clinging to a piece of driftwood.

Gallagher, the first officer on the scene was able to call out to him, urging him to swim toward the shore.

“He definitely heard me. He turned and looked at me. He basically gave me verbals that he wasn’t going to comply with it,” Gallagher said.

The man let go of the wood and swam away from the shore.

The water at the bottom of the Horseshoe Falls is open now, but a few weeks ago it was frozen solid between the Canadian and American shores.

While the man bobbed in the water, chunks of ice as big as he is as floated by. He moved his arms like he was swimming, but didn’t seem to have any direction.

At the same time the parks police high angle team and firefighters were setting up on shore for a rescue.

Approximately 30 minutes after the emergency call, Niagara Helicopters pilot Ruedi Hafen flew into the gorge. Parks police Constable Shawn Black, a member of the police force’s high angle river team, leaned out the side door. He tried to reach the man with an pole, but the man didn’t cooperate.

Hafen then used his helicopter’s draft to blow the man toward the shore. When he got about 60 feet away, firefighter Brunning entered the water wearing a specialized dry suit, swam to the man and pulled him back to shore. Firefighters carried him to an ambulance where paramedics treated him.

At least 17 people — not including suicide attempts — are known to have gone over the falls.

“He was on a suicide mission, I assume,” Hafen, the helicopter pilot, said.

“I’ve never, in my career, seen someone so tough, swimming between the ice.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.