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Californian Killed in Niagara Falls Stunt : Accident: Parachute fails to open for rider of motorized ski. Leap was effort to draw attention to plight of homeless.

October 02, 1995|DAVID R. BAKER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The body of a California stunt school graduate who rode a personal watercraft off Niagara Falls in a long-planned daredevil stunt Sunday was pulled from the waters 180 feet below after his parachute failed to open, Canadian officials said.

Witnesses saw Robert Overacker, 39, of Camarillo, ride over the brink of the Canadian Horseshoe Falls around 12:35 p.m., Niagara Falls Parks police said. "When you're hitting water, it's like hitting cement at that height," said Tom Detenbeck, a parks police dispatcher.

Overacker was pronounced dead at the Greater Niagara General Hospital an hour after the stunt, said the coroner, Dr. Azim Velji. An autopsy will be performed today in nearby Hamilton, Ontario, Velji said.

Police said Overacker, whom they described as a graduate of a California stunt school, had been planning the stunt for about seven years, apparently to draw attention to the plight of the homeless. His motorized ski bore a sign reading "Save The Homeless," and the stunt was being photographed by his brother, Michael Zureich, of San Antonio, Tex., and a Ventura friend, Christopher Yeomans, who had arrived with him Sunday.

Twice before he had traveled to the falls to try the stunt, and both times, Detenbeck said, friends had dissuaded him.

Overacker had equipped himself with a life preserver and parachute. His intent, Detenbeck said, was to let go of the motorized ski as it went over the edge, deploy the chute and float down to the water.

The popular site was crowded with 2,000 to 3,000 tourists when Overacker put his motorized ski in the water and headed toward the brink, Detenbeck said. A tour bus driver who saw him called police.

Officials characterized the device strapped to his back as a "rocket propelled parachute," apparently a mechanism to lift him clear of the motorized ski, but they could offer no details as to how it operated.

At the foot of the falls, Overacker was lifted aboard the tour boat Maid of the Mist and taken to shore. Medical personnel tried unsuccessfully to revive him en route to the hospital.

Velji declined to detail the precise cause of death. Overacker's body showed no obvious injuries or bruises when examined Sunday afternoon, he said.

Overacker's wife, Laurie Overacker of Camarillo, was notified shortly afterward, Detenbeck said. She and a group of friends gathered at the couple's Camarillo home Sunday afternoon, but they declined to comment.

Fourteen people have survived plunges over Niagara. Overacker is the fifth person to die since 1901, according to the Niagara Falls Parks Commission.

Detenbeck said people underestimate the falls' strength. "You're talking a million gallons of water going over the falls in a second," he said. "That's a lot of force, a lot of power."

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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