In February 2019, a powerful winter storm with wind gusts over 70 mph toppled trees, knocked out power to thousands and tore through the ice boom that spans Lake Erie near the Peace Bridge to prevent ice from flowing into the Niagara River.
At least three 30-foot-long metal pontoons broke off from the boom. One ended up near Niawanda Park in the town of Tonawanda. One went over the American Falls.
The 3,500-pound pontoon was one of many to break Lake Erie’s ice dam during a windstorm in February 2019 and floated for miles downstream to the edge of American Falls.
A third got stuck in the rapids off Bird Island, just over 100 yards from the edge of Bridal Veil Falls in Niagara Falls State Park.
On Wednesday, if all goes according to plan, a massive New York Army National Guard Chinook helicopter is to fly in from Rochester and lift the beached pontoon out of the river.
On Tuesday, the Niagara Falls State Parks Police Swiftwater Rescue Team was tasked with preparing the pontoon and the area around it for the next day’s operation. They will be back in the water on Wednesday – to attach the pontoon to the mooring lines lowered from the helicopter and then untie it from where it has been anchored for three years.
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“It needs to be removed as it is close to the edge of the bridal veil falls,” Parks Police Capt. Christopher Rola said. “Underneath is the Cave of the Winds attraction, so if it went there it would be catastrophic. It’s not a little stick there. It’s a 3,500 pound piece of steel. He could do a lot of damage.”
On Tuesday morning, the Swiftwater rescue team, dressed in bright orange and yellow wetsuits and carrying gear bags, set up shop on a small, unnamed island off Luna Island. They threaded two sets of ropes between the islands, one for tying down team members and a second downstream safety rope that team members call a “shower curtain.”
“In case someone comes loose from the other rope, they can grab hold of this one and we can pull them out,” said Travis Saturley, a Cave of the Winds supervisor and bridge builder, who was on hand to help with Tuesday’s mission.
Three of the team members waded through the rapids, tied to the ropes while the other members watched over them, ready to spring into action if anything went wrong.
Team members checked the pontoon and the area around it for any possible issues that might arise before the helicopter flew overhead. They searched for branches, roots or other debris as well as any issues with the pontoon itself, Lt. Brian Russell said.
“They will check that the two hooks on top are structurally good to fetch the Chinook helicopter,” he said, “and inspect the anchor line – which prevented the pontoon from floating away from its current location. . They’re going to make sure there are no issues with that.”
Members of the team working on the pontoon reported to the rest of the team by radio.
“They said everything was clear and he should be easily removed,” Russell said.
Members of the New York State Park Police Swift Water Rescue Team wade through the Niagara River above Bridal Veil Falls, departing from Bird Island…
They still had to make it back to solid ground. One by one, the team members entered the water, struggling against the fierce current that tugged the taught rope. Sometimes they could walk on a rocky platform with only a few inches of water at their feet. In other places the water was waist deep and the team members slowly made their way through.
Minutes after coming back to earth, Officer Scott Durham seemed remarkably calm for having accomplished a death-defying feat. With water dripping from his orange and black jumpsuit, he confirmed that he and the other team members had encountered no problems except for the angry honking of a mother goose nesting nearby with her babies.
Durham has been a parks police officer for more than 20 years but, he said, he still took a moment on Tuesday to take in the extraordinary sight of the water passing by the edge of the falls – while standing in strong currents.
“There aren’t a lot of people who see it that way,” he said.