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July 2, 2010

'Miracle at Niagara' — 50 years later

NIAGARA FALLS — Roger Woodward still remembers how bored and lonely he was that day, July 9, 1960, until a family friend invited him for a boat ride on the upper Niagara River.

Seven years old then, he didn’t even know where he was going, but he was sure it would be a good time.

Roger’s sister, Deanne, was celebrating her 17th birthday, and James Honeycutt, 42, a family friend, thought the Woodward children would enjoy an outing in his 12-foot aluminum boat with the 71⁄2 horsepower motor.

It would be a tension-filled day they’d never forget.

Headlines would describe it as “The Miracle at Niagara,” a  three-dimensional story: survival against all odds; a dramatic rescue at the brink of a 170-foot waterfall, and death.

Now, 50 years later, Woodward, 57, semi-retired from a Huntsville, Ala., realty firm, recalls how it all unfolded.

Mindful of his mother’s insistence that he wear a lifejacket, the boy could hardly wait until his sister wrapped the adult-size jacket snugly around him. They set out from a dock near the Lynch Trailer Park in Wheatfield.

The Woodwards still hadn’t any idea where they were heading. Nor did they know that they’d be out on the Niagara River.

“I didn’t know how to swim,” Woodward said. “I just knew that we were all going for a boat ride, and it sounded like a lot of fun.”

Passing under the North Grand Island Bridge, the boat soon entered the danger zone, especially for anyone unaware of the tricky currents ahead. Obviously the huge warning signs escaped their notice.

Honeycutt had allowed his small passenger to steer the boat for a while.

“I spotted an island (Goat Island) toward the American shore where it seemed there were thousands of sea gulls,” Woodward said. “ I guess we got too close. We hit something, and the pin sheared on the motor.”

With the disabled boat drifting in unpredictable currents. Honeycutt quickly reached back to shut off the motor. He grabbed the oars to change direction, but couldn’t fight the  flow. He immediately handed Deanne the only other lifejacket.

Dropping from a couple of ledges off the Three Sister Islands, the boat was suddenly in rapids. “The first wave got us good and wet. When the second one came, we were all thrown into the water,” Woodward said.

The fun outing for a day had turned into a nightmare.

“One minute I was tossed in the air like a toy. The next minute I was slamming into rocks and getting pulled under water. My sister told me later that I had said that we were going to die.”

Luckily, the boy hadn’t forgotten his dad’s lesson about how to hold his breath for a long time while under water.

In the distance, toward Terrapin Point at the edge of the Horseshoe Falls, Woodward could see people running along the shore, probably pointing at the capsized boat or looking for any sign of life.

Still, Woodward was not fully aware of the danger ahead, the sheer drop into the Niagara Gorge. He did start thinking again, however, about dying. “I thought about my dog, my toys, and how sad my mom and dad would be.”

Ironically, as he passed over the brink, Woodward said it was “the most peaceful and pleasant moment” of that whole experience. “It was as though I was floating in a cloud.”

The landing for the 55-pounder was soft. He was still conscious. Bobbing beneath the waterfall, he peered through the mist and saw the outline of a large boat.

It was the Maid of the Mist sightseeing boat. Veteran Capt. Clifford Keech was turning the vessel away from the thundering cataract for the trip back to the Canadian landing.

Keech later explained that seconds after he heard someone holler “man overboard,” he spotted the youngster flopping in the choppy waters. Immediately he took the “Maid” off its regular course on a mission of mercy.

The captain was concerned that the currents would pull Woodward toward the huge propellers. A crew member missed on his first toss of the life preserver. His second one was just short, too, but on the third try, Woodward was able to slip onto it.

“My sister’s still in the water!” the anxious boy told the crew as they hauled him aboard, “You gotta help her!”

He had no way of knowing what had happened minutes before, less than 40 feet from the brink he just passed over.

Deanne, a strong swimmer, was trying desperately to reach the shoreline.

John Hayes, 44, of Vauxhall, N.J., a bus driver and auxiliary police officer, spotted her shortly after he witnessed her brother pass by.

“Girl, come to me!” Hayes shouted, again and again. Deanne said later, “It was the power of that man’s voice that kept me from giving up.”

As she got closer to the railing, Hayes tried to snag her arm. He missed but dashed along the shoreline, realizing he was running out of ground.

John Quattrochi of Penns Grove, N.J., rushed to the railing too and helped Hayes pull Deanne from the river and onto the pavement.

Honeycutt was swept to his death. The body was recovered three days later along the lower river. The Woodwards have never forgotten his heroic act, making sure that Deanne had the remaining lifejacket.

The media frenzy was bigger than anything Niagara had experienced in modern times.

For decades, about 15 daredevils in steel barrels, rubber balls and other contraptions had challenged the cataracts. Three of them were killed. Woodward was the first person to survive without any protective device. He abhors, though, that anyone would mention him in the same breath with Niagara’s daredevils.

(In 2003, Kirk Jones, 40, an unemployed man from Michigan, wearing only jeans, sneakers and a heavy coat, floated over the Horseshoe and survived.)

After Woodward survived the fall, the 7-year-old survivor sat up in his hospital bed and told a reporter, “It was a rough trip, and boy was I happy to see that boat! You know, I might have gotten killed!”

In retrospect, Woodward said recently: “As an adult with three sons of my own, I find it kind of amazing that my parents let me go off with somebody, not knowing where we were going, not knowing what skills that person had or what equipment he had (in case of any emergency). Times were different then.”

One point the Woodward parents instilled in their children was that they should put the accident behind them. To never forget that a man died that day and that they were fortunate to have survived.

To escape from the media, the family moved to a small town along the Hudson River and later to Florida, where they never shared the Niagara story with anybody.

“The truth is, Deanne and I didn’t talk about it for 34 years,” Woodward said. “I never had any nightmares, but she struggled with it. She didn’t want to talk about it. Nor did she want to go back to Niagara Falls.” (She changed her mind to attend a reunion here in 1994).

Woodward said the family never tried to benefit financially from the accident because from their perspective, they hadn’t done anything. “A man had died and, by the grace of God, we had lived,” he added.

Before joining the realty firm in Huntsville, Woodward worked for 27 years in sales and management in the office products industry and in telecommunications.

He and his wife, Susan, have three boys, Christopher, 30, Jonathan, 27, and Daniel, 23.

While he shunned any publicity, including offers to do a reality TV show,  Woodward would always tell reporters there was an exception to that self-imposed ban.

“When my sons were in elementary school and they would ask if I could visit their class to do a ‘show-and-tell,’ I was very willing,” he said. “After all, if my boys thought I was a hero, well, I guess that was OK.”

Contact reporter Don Glynn at 282-2311, ext. 2246. Sources include the Niagara Gazette files; Niagara Falls Public Library-Local History Department; and “Miracle at Niagara,” by Cliff Spieler

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