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'Hot Line' Phones Installed at the Brink : Niagara Falls Lures the Suicidal, Keeps Police Officers on Their Toes

November 08, 1987|JOHN F. BONFATTI | Associated Press

NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — The image, presented in his 1983 poem, "Epiphanies of the First Cold Day," haunted Robert Billings for some time.

This is my persistent nightmare:

I jump into a shallow river

My feet sink in mud to mid-calf, the top of my head just breaks the surface

It's November

Too soon for the ice to preserve me.

One November day three years after he recorded this foreboding notion, the Canadian poet apparently walked into the Niagara River just above the thunderous Horseshoe Falls and was swept to his death. The Niagara froze over and the ice melted before his body was found in June.

Each year, millions of people visit Niagara Falls to see one of North America's most spectacular natural features. In an average year, 30 people come to end their lives.

Second to Golden Gate

As a place for suicide, "Niagara Falls ranks second only to the Golden Gate Bridge," said Daniel Clark, who directs the Hotline and Crisis Intervention Service of New York's Niagara County.

"There's a point of no return," said Capt. Joseph DeMarco of the U.S. Niagara Parks Police. He noted that the swift-moving rapids above the falls, the 18-story drop and the force of the water as it crashes on the rocks below make the result of any fall "swift and sure."

"If you don't want to be rescued," he added, "there's no way we can effect a rescue."

Only one person--excluding the daredevils in barrels--has survived a plunge over the falls. Seven-year-old Roger Woodward was pitched into the river in a 1960 boating accident and went over the falls in his life jacket. He suffered only minor cuts and bruises.

One suicide in 1985 was captured on videotape by a crew from Buffalo's WGRZ-TV.

Reporter Phil Kavits was shooting a promotion for the station at the brink when the man entered the river and plunged over the falls. The dramatic footage was widely shown.

Statistics Not Exact

Suicide statistics are imprecise for several reasons, according to Bill Derbyshire, chief of the Canadian parks police.

He said Canadian authorities expect to see 12 to 15 suicides a year on their side of the falls. American officials put the figure on the U.S. side at about 16 a year.

"We're talking about people who have been witnessed to go in and (remains) are recovered," Derbyshire said. "That's a nice tidy thing, because we know there's no foul play. There are people that go in at night unseen and are listed as missing persons. Then there are the odd ones that go in and are never recovered."

Identifying the bodies--often disfigured by the elements--can be a time-consuming job.

"Most of the bodies are so badly damaged, multiple broken bones and the like" that experts often have to use dental charts to make the identification, Derbyshire said.

More likely, however, the jumper has left something behind, such as the shoes of the 74-year-old housekeeper that were found near the brink of the falls. Inside the shoes was a note: "Call this number and tell them I went for a swim at the falls."

Jumpers Leave Notes

A few leave lengthy, detailed notes. One 46-year-old attorney filled six pages of legal paper. "This end has been inevitable for some time, only I didn't see it coming," his note read.

A 29-year-old woman wrote: "I can't believe I'm writing this." She continued: "I love you but I don't want to waste your time or anybody else's. I'm a loser in life. Please find somebody else who is normal and responsible. I guess this was meant to be."

For most of those who go over the falls, it is not the first attempt at taking their own lives.

"What you have is a progression in suicidal attempts," Clark said. "They may start with wrist-slashing or pill-taking and progress to more lethal means."

Generally, Clark said, they are "people going through a loss--either in a relationship or a bodily function or a job."

Others have less comprehensible reasons.

Derbyshire told of a 16-year-old boy who rode his bicycle into the river because his family was going to move away and he would lose his friends.

Jumped Over Bad Skin

DeMarco mentioned the case of a girl who was beautiful, "except that she used to have blotches on her face when she got nervous. One day, she left the dermatologist and came right down and went in. Cosmetic beauty was all that bothered her."

Some have second thoughts. DeMarco recalled one unemployed man who "dove over the rail into the water, and he hit that cold water in March and he got himself out of there as fast as you could believe."

Experience has helped park officers form a profile of a likely suicide.

"After a while you get a sixth sense," said Lt. Arthur Woodhead, who patrols the American side. "They're sitting there on the bench and they're mumbling to themselves, or they're crying. Or you see them go up to the railing and back."

People alone are particularly suspect. "Not too many people visit the park alone. Cab drivers will always call and tell us, 'We've just delivered somebody to the park.' Bartenders will alert us, 'Somebody just left the bar and they were crying.' "

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