Falling over the Falls

Do you remember the name Roger Woodward? He became a legend when, at 7 years old, the poor little boy was in a boat that capsized on the Niagara River, and he was swept up into the brutal current and over Niagara Falls. However, that’s the Cole’s Notes version.  The photo below is the exact picture I saw when the story was run again in a Toronto newspaper about a dozen years later. I’ll never forget it (the picture or Woodward). This is the actual story…

123_woodwardNiagara Falls is the collective name for three waterfalls that surround the border between Canada and the U.S. They form the southern end of the Niagara Gorge. If you’ve ever been to the Falls you’d never forget the pounding thunder as more than six million cubic feet (168,000 m3) of water crashes over a 165 foot drop of sheer cliff every minute. This was the natural miracle that, on Saturday July 9 1960, would sweep a man to his death and a little boy over the Falls, who would actually live to tell the tale.

It was on that fateful day that Jim Honeycutt , a friend of the Woodward family, offered to take Roger Woodward, and his sister, Deanne, 17, on a boat ride on the upper Niagara River. Honeycutt owned a sparse 12 foot aluminum fishing boat equipped with a 7.5 horsepower motor. Why anyone would take a boat ride somewhere above the Falls (even from a fairly significant distance) is anyone’s guess. In fact, it was widely known that the Maid of the Mist cruise once took place above the Falls at one time. Tragically the Maid usually ended up beneath it until authorities put a stop to the practice and the Maid was relegated to the Niagara Basin far below. It was one of the Maid of the Mist boats that would pull Roger to safety and spare him from drowning. But I digress.

Back on board the Honeycutt boat, everything was going swimmingly (pun) for a time until the boat hit a shoal, damaging a pin in the engine. Try though he might, Honeycutt was unable to restart the engine. The boat soon capsized, sending the terrified party of three into the icy cold river. The two children had no idea they were above the Falls. Honeycutt didn’t last long. The poor man was swept over the Falls to a terrifying death. Honeycutt’s body was freed from the depths of the Niagara River four days later.

Luck was on Deanne’s side, however. The terrified teenager was also swept along in the brutal, pounding current. The raging water was very cold, extremely loud and pitch dark. As she struggled helplessly to get to shore Deanne smashed into painful boulders that appeared out of nowhere.. Just as the teenager was 20 feet away from the edge of the Horseshoe Falls, a truck driver named John R. Hayes bravely climbed over a rail and held out his arm, pleading with Deanne to swim toward his hand. Deanne would later state that his “pleading voice” made her swim harder away from the precipice. That Deanne was able to hear his voice over the roar of the water is another miracle. Incredibly, Deanne managed to fight the brutal strength of the Niagara current and she just caught Hayes’ thumb with an iron-like grip before she was swept over the Falls and onto the rocks below. Afraid the current would pull Deanne over the Falls, Hayes pleaded for help. John Quattrochi responded quickly. He leaped the rail and helped Hayes to pull her to safety. People cheered but not Deanne.

roger woodwardEven in shock, Deanne’s first concern was for her little brother. She asked Quattrochi about him. Quietly, John Quattrochi whispered “Pray for him.”  Quattrochi believed Woodward would never be seen alive again. He was wrong. Deanne was rushed to a hospital in Niagara Falls, New York, with only a cut hand. Hayes suffered a sore thumb (joke).

The next development in the story is nothing less than miraculous. It was the beginning of Roger Woodward’s legend. After the boat capsized, the little 7-year-old boy was nowhere near as fortunate as his sister. Roger was trapped inside the roaring current that travels at a breathtaking speed of 225,000 cubic feet (6,400 m3) per second. One would think little Roger had no time to assess what had happened to him. But that’s not so. In his own words, Woodward revealed the thought process of a 7-year-old child:

It didn’t register for me that I was heading to fall into this gorge….For me there was initially pure panic, I was scared to death. I can remember going through the rapids and being thrown against the rocks and being bounced around like a toy in the water and being beaten up pretty badly. My panic very quickly shifted to anger and the anger was from seeing people running frantically up and down the shoreline and wondering why they wouldn’t come out and rescue me.”

Captain Clifford Keech was aboard a Maid of the Mist the very moment Woodward fell over the Falls. At first, Keech wondered if he had imagined the bright orange lifejacket bobbing about in the Basin. But he manipulated the Maid around to woodward-miracleget a closer look and spotted the struggling boy. Incredulous, Keech threw out a buoy and Woodward, exhausted and beaten, somehow managed to catch it. The little boy held on with an iron grip as Keech pulled him aboard. Although neither Keech nor Woodward  could hear it, dozens of people above the Falls cheered and cried. Some took pictures. Many thanked God that the child was alive. Like his sister Deanne, Woodward’s only concern was for his sibling. Woodward’s survival was miraculous on many levels: he wasn’t battered to death by the rocks as he swept toward the Falls; he wasn’t crushed by the drop into the Gorge; he didn’t drown; he wasn’t sucked into any of the whirlpools and incredibly, the force of the Fall didn’t pull him limb from limb.

Woodward became a media sensation. Although his parents could easily have profited from their son’s miraculous survival story, they refused to give interviews. Instead, the Woodward’s packed up and moved from the area in an effort to return to their normal, quiet lives.

In 1994 Roger Woodward and his sister Deanne Woodward Simpson travelled to Niagara Falls to retell their story on a half hour Canadian television special. The gentlemen, now both in their eighties, who rescued Deanne from above the Falls were interviewed. For Deanne it was an extremely emotional meeting. She had not seen both gentlemen for over 30 years, nor had she since stood at the edge of the Falls that had claimed the life of Jim Honeycutt, and had almost claimed both her life and that of her brother.

Over the decades many people have accidentally or deliberately been swept over Niagara Falls. Here are a few:

Deliberate suicide. Who knows what went through this man’s head before he jumped?
A teenager who fell to his death after a police chase.
Lucky survivor: this man changed his mind about committing suicide over a gambling debt.
So did this man. He said it felt “like I had slammed into a granite table. I thought water was soft but it’s not soft at all.”
A Japanese student who fell over the Falls.
A woman who fell over the Falls.
A woman fell into the Niagara Gorge beneath the Falls.

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