Saint John Rescue is a vast organization of highly skilled volunteers and professionals. In Ontario, Canada, and many other places around the world, they provide ambulance service, rescue lost hikers, and promote water safety. Each year, they help thousands of people and save hundreds of lives. But one bright Wednesday morning, August 25, 1993, in Niagara Falls, they did something else entirely.
The falls have long been a special place for my wife, Cathy, and me. We spent our honeymoon there in 1978 and have returned once or twice a year for decades. What drew us was not just the majestic beauty of six million cubic feet of water each minute plunging 165 feet into Niagara Gorge, or the festive atmosphere of Clifton Hill’s restaurants, taverns, and wax museums, but also the thirty miles of scenic parkway for running, biking, and swimming.
Our three children loved it, and that Wednesday, we were at the Chippewa Slip, about a mile upstream from the Falls, where a portion of the Niagara River diverts to become the Welland River with its lovely beach and boat docks. I had just finished a nine-mile run with my 12-year-old daughter, Catherine, riding escort on her bicycle, and we met my wife and our boys, Bobby and Mikey, at the beach.
It was eighty-five degrees and humid, so I swam across the river with Catherine and made another trip with Bobby as Cathy watched from the beach. Bobby was 9 years old and a good swimmer. It wasn’t a far swim, and I was confident of my kids’ abilities. Still, I had taught them that if they ever got tired, they could just put their hand on my shoulder and hitch a ride. An avid swimmer, I always paid special attention to motorboats. I had had several close calls with them, and as a detective I once handled a manslaughter case when a boater cruising too close to shore killed a swimmer while the swimmer’s daughter looked on helplessly from the water’s edge.
Chippewa Beach was routinely patrolled by Saint John Rescue. They had sixteen-foot boats equipped with twin 90-horsepower Mercury outboard engines. The two-person crew would motor to the entrance of the slip, turn the engines off, and drift quietly in the current, watching for any boater or swimmer in need of help. And that’s just what they were doing when Bobby and I headed back to the beach from the far side. We were approaching the middle of the river as the rescue boat drifted slowly past. A man stood at the center control console, and a young woman was in the bow.
Seeing us approach, the woman gestured for us to swim ahead and pass. Bobby was following immediately behind me. But just as I got in front of the boat, the man must have seen something that concerned him. Apparently, he didn’t know we were there, and he switched on the engines. The twin props sent the boat surging forward. The bow was coming straight at my head, and all I could do was push off from the keel and shove myself deep below with a couple of desperate strokes from my arms.
In a second that seemed to draw out into eternity, I thought of Bobby, small and vulnerable there in the water, and nothing I could do to protect him. I heard the screaming whine of the props and saw their spiraling cavitations. Sunlight shimmered and sparkled off the air bubbles moving gently below the stern as the world seemed to stop.
Somehow, in a whirl of surging water and high, shrieking engine noise, the props sailed over me. The boat shot past, and I could hear the woman screaming even before I popped up to the surface. The engines died, and the man looked back, wide-eyed and speechless.
The lady hollered, “Are you okay?”
Seeing Bobby swimming to me, I said, “I’m fine,” though I still felt the adrenaline charge.
The boat had narrowly missed Bobby. I wanted to continue our swim so he wouldn’t develop a morbid fear of open water, but the woman insisted that we climb aboard and they take us to the beach. So we climbed in and met Cathy and the kids, who hadn’t realized anything was wrong until they saw us getting aboard.
That evening, Bobby and I swam in the Niagara River by our motel, and every year since that little nightmare, we finished each vacation at the Falls with the three kids and me swimming a half mile in the Niagara River and on into Chippewa Slip and the beach. Invigorated after the long swim, we would stop at Tim Hortons and drive off with a box of doughnuts.
* Bobby is now married and works as a computer engineer with Boeing Defense, Space & Security in Southern California. He lives only a few miles from us, and we still swim together in open water.