Survivor of plunge over Niagara at age 7 recalls terror at the brink

Roger Woodward, 7, floats in the water after a plunge over the Horseshoe Falls , protected only by a life vest after a boating accident July 9, 1960. (Buffalo News file photo)

Roger Woodward, 7, floats in the water after a plunge over the Horseshoe Falls , protected only by a life vest after a boating accident July 9, 1960. (Buffalo News file photo)

Roger Woodward is travelling soon to see his newborn grandson Jack. The infant is the fourth grandchild for Woodward and his wife Susan, a “really wonderful person” he married 43 years ago. The couple raised three sons, the youngest now 32, and describing his family is Woodward’s best answer for the question everyone asks.

What does it mean to survive going over Niagara Falls?

More specifically, make that the Horseshoe Falls, whose shape and essence Woodward understands with an intimacy shared by few others. He was 7 years old on July 9, 1960, when a boat ride with a family friend in the Upper Niagara River turned into a cascade of utter fear and loss.

Woodward was swept over the 188-foot drop of the falls, and lived. His sister Deanne, then 17, was barely rescued near the brink. James Honeycutt, owner of the 12-foot aluminium boat, died in the plunge, which to Woodward remains the thought and memory that should be at the centre of any conversation.

“What happened was a tragedy,” Woodward said, “and my sister and I are just thankful we survived.”

His phone started buzzing a few days ago, after Niagara Parks Police said a man attempting to take his own life went over the falls and came out alive. That unnamed survivor became a global story, entering a tiny group of which Woodward, for years, was the only known member.

Five people have now gone over the falls without physical protection and somehow lived. There was Woodward,  whose unlikely journey is still known as the “Miracle at Niagara.” There was Kirk Jones, who in 2003 survived what he called a suicide attempt but what some friends said was a long-shot stunt. Fourteen years later, Jones died while apparently seeking to ride over in an inflatable ball.

Since 2009, three others – their names never revealed by authorities – have attempted suicide yet survived at the base of the falls.

In every situation, Woodward, 66, a retired technology executive, hears from many journalists seeking his reaction. How and whether he responds depends on the questions. During his childhood, the overwhelming nature of the attention caused his parents to leave Niagara Falls, and there was a long period when he rarely spoke of what he endured.

Now, he will address it only if he senses an understanding of the truth, which equates to an everyday philosophy he wishes he could somehow share with the man who leaped, out of despair:

“As I’ve grown older,” Woodward said, “I’ve just felt this profound appreciation for life.”

He does not want to be bundled in with daredevils and barrel riders. In 1960, he was a little boy living in a mobile home while his dad helped build the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant. As part of celebrating Deanne’s 17th birthday, Honeycutt – a work friend of their father’s – offered to take the siblings for a boat ride on the river.

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All these years later, Woodward can remember how his sister picked up an adult life jacket, one of two on board, and tied it on him, snug, before they left.

Because of that instant, he lived to see everything he cares about today.

They headed north on the river, and Woodward was too little to be frightened when they moved into an area considered unsafe for small boats. He is not sure if Honeycutt was unaware of the danger or felt he could navigate those waters. What Woodward does recall is a hard collision with a rock near a shoal that rendered the motor useless.

Fully realising their plight, Honeycutt grabbed for the oars, shouting at Deanne to put on the only remaining life jacket. “His ability to row,” Woodward said, “was no match for the current.”

Decades later, through Facebook, Woodward struck up a digital friendship with one of Honeycutt’s grandchildren. Emphatically, he made this point to her: Honeycutt knew he could not survive without a life jacket, “and his last heroic act in life was commanding my sister to put it on,” Woodward said.

Deanne had time to wrap it around her shoulders and connect a single clasp – just enough to keep her afloat – when surging, chaotic waves overturned the boat.

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Roger Woodward was pulled from the turbulent water at the base of the Horseshoe Falls by the crew of the Maid of the Mist, shown here a few years ago (The Buffalo News)

Roger Woodward was pulled from the turbulent water at the base of the Horseshoe Falls by the crew of the Maid of the Mist, shown here a few years ago (The Buffalo News)

Woodward could not swim. He instantly lost sight of Honeycutt, and the child did not learn until later of Deanne’s desperate struggle to reach the shore, how she was saved by the fast-thinking intervention of two onlookers, John Hayes and John Quattrochi, after Deanne barely managed to catch Hayes by the thumb.

Instead, Woodward – at maybe 55 pounds – was caught in the upper rapids, “churning water that sucks you down and throws you up in the air and you’re hitting rocks and you have no sense of where you are and you’re choking on water and then all of a sudden, maybe 75 yards or away from the end, everything flattens out.”

Out of tumult, he remembers reaching that smooth plain of green river flowing toward the brink, how he saw adults running back and forth on the shore and wondered for an instant why no one was helping him, then a quick burst of a child’s anger at being left alone, before something – some feeling of utter helplessness – came across him that he recalls, exactly.

He was going to die.

There was enough time for him to think about his parents, and his dog, and what would happen to his toys.

Woodward was 7, with no real understanding of the falls. He remembers wondering, “Oh my God, what’s that?” of the void ahead. “I fell into a cloud,” he says now. “There was no sensation like vertigo, no sensation in my stomach. There was a dense cloud of mist and I could not see anything and only hear the roar,” and at the end, for an instant, he was amid seething water.

“I had a moment of despair,” he said, “not knowing where I was.”

And then he was out.

The river pushed him away, and as he began to clear the mist – stunned and overwhelmed – that life jacket was spotted by a deckhand on the Maid of the Mist, the tourist boat that roams the gorge at the bottom of the falls. The captain, a guy named Clifford Keach, managed to steer close enough for crew members to throw a life ring that Roger grabbed on the third try, and the boy held on as they pulled him to the boat.

He would be hospitalized, treated for bruises and a concussion that left him in bed for three days. He remembers a nurse telling him that his sister had survived. It was not until his parents took him home that he learned Honeycutt had died in the river.

Fifty-nine years and 1,500 miles away from the falls, Woodward quietly drew the line again.

No, he said. He was no daredevil.

A friend was killed. He and Deanne, now retired in Florida, do not forget. Woodward often says, with intensity that only gains emphasis as they grow older, how their survival was an act of God.

“I try to pass it on to my grandchildren,” Woodward said. “There’s an old expression that with time comes age, and with age comes experience, and with experience comes wisdom. There are no shortcuts between, and you hope somewhere along the line you made good decisions and there will be even better decisions ahead.”

He has been to the falls many times over the years, for commemorations and sometimes quietly with his family. Woodward expects he will return for any formal 60th anniversary remembrance next year if the event carries the right tone of respect for Honeycutt.

As for his place in the lore of the river, Woodward said that if he relates to anyone, it is with two workers who in 1918 were rescued against all odds from a scow stranded in the upper rapids – two men who learned what it meant to be in such a terrifying place, with little hope.

“Life is precious,” Woodward said, “and I’m so thankful they lived.”

To the survivor of the suicide attempt, as well as any others who tried to take their own lives and walked away, Woodward extends both a prayer and a wish. He knows better than anyone about that instant at the brink, and he hopes in turn they someday understand what it means to hold a tiny grandchild to your chest, in a world beyond Niagara.

The Woodward family, 59 years after the 'Miracle at Niagara' .

The Woodward family, 59 years after the ‘Miracle at Niagara’ .