Facing the challenge of water and gravity


Niagara: Desperation and daredeviltry send a courageous few over the edge, with or without a barrel.

October 23, 2003

Every second, 150,000 gallons of water from the Niagara River roars over Canada's Horseshoe Falls, dashing against rocks as it crashes down for 180 feet. Not content simply to watch and marvel, some people feel compelled to challenge the rushing water.

Annie Taylor, an impoverished teacher, is given credit for being the first to risk the Falls and live to tell the tale. On Oct. 24, 1901, she was tucked into a barrel, strapped into a harness, towed into the channel, cut loose and swept away to the precipice. Much to her surprise, she survived.

Today, 102 years later to the week, people are no less captivated by firsts. Yesterday's Sun reported on Kirk Jones, who like Annie Taylor was from Michigan. The 40-year-old man went over the Falls on Monday, becoming the first to survive without some sort of protection.

Jones, of Canton, Mich., was charged with performing an illegal stunt and could be fined up to $10,000. But in a telephone interview with ABC News, he said he was depressed, not a daredevil.

"I honestly thought that it wasn't worth going on," he said. "But I can tell you now after hitting the Falls I feel that life is worth living."

Suicides are not uncommon at Niagara Falls, although police are reluctant to give numbers. Since 1901, 15 daredevils have taken the plunge in barrels or other devices, including a kayak and a personal watercraft. Ten survived, says Paul Gromosiak, a Niagara Falls historian.

The only other person known to have survived the Horseshoe Falls without a barrel or other craft was a 7-year-old boy who was thrown into the water in a boating accident in 1960. He, however, was wearing a life preserver.

The Falls on the American side are narrower and even rockier, and no one has lived after going over.

Annie Taylor, a teacher from Bay City, Mich., said she went over in hopes of making money on the lecture circuit.

"I was left a widow at 20 and have devoted the most of my life to others," she said after she was fished out of the water. "If it was with my dying breath I would caution anyone against attempting the feat. I will never go over the Falls again. I would rather walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces, than make another trip over the Falls."

Taylor, who at the time said she was 43, was later revealed to have been 63. Her dreams of riches were never fulfilled, however, and she died 20 years later, penniless.

"No one ought ever do that again," she had said.

Next came Bobby Leach, an Englishman, who went over in a cylindrical steel barrel on July 25, 1911. He broke his jaw and both kneecaps and spent the next six months in the hospital.

Years later, at the age of 67, Leach went on a tour with his daughter to Australia and New Zealand. On April 29, 1925, while walking on a street in New Zealand, he slipped on an orange peel. Complications led to a leg amputation and then gangrene, which killed him.

Another Englishman was the first to die. On July 11, 1920, Charles Stephens, a barber from England, took the Falls in a wooden barrel. Searchers found nothing but a few splinters and his tattooed right arm.

Why do they do it?

"The lure is the massive amount of water, which is so overwhelming in its force, its power, its size," says Gromosiak, who has written several books on the Falls. "You feel so diminutive there. You feel so humbled there and overwhelmed by it all."

Compiled by Kathy Lally and Sun Researcher Paul McCardell, with information from the Associated Press, Niagara Falls Daredevil Museum and infoniagara.com

Taking on Niagara Falls

October 24, 1901: Annie Taylor becomes the first to survive the Falls, going over in a wooden barrel and making Sun headlines (below).

July 25, 1911: Bobby Leach, of Cornwall, England, uses a steel barrel and survives.

July 11, 1920: Charles G. Stephens of Bristol, England, dies going over the Falls using a wooden barrel.

July 4, 1928: Jean Lussier of Niagara Falls lines a 6-foot rubber ball with tubes filled with oxygen. He survives and later sells pieces of the ball for 50 cents.

July 4, 1930: George Stathakis, a chef from Buffalo, N.Y., looks as if he has made it, until cascading water traps his steel-and-wood barrel. He suffocates; his lucky pet turtle survives.

August 5, 1951: William "Red" Hill, Jr., straps 13 inner tubes together with fishnet, and dies.

July, 9 1960: Roger Woodward, 7, falls out of a boat, wearing a lifejacket, and survives, in what comes to be called the "Miracle at Niagara."

July 15, 1961: Nathan T. Boya goes over in a rubber ball. One problem: Niagara Parks police spot him and write a ticket. He is fined $100 and costs of $13.

July 2, 1984: Karel Soucek of Hamilton, Ont., survives in a red metal barrel insulated with liquid foam. He is fined $500.

August 18, 1985: Steve Trotter, a 22-year-old Rhode Island bartender, survives in a plastic pickle barrel surrounded by inner tubes. Ten years later, he and Lori Martin become the first man-and-woman team to survive.

October 5, 1985: Dave Munday, a 48-year-old Canadian mechanic, makes the first of two successful trips over the Falls, in a foam-insulated, 400-gallon plastic tank.

September 28, 1989: Peter DeBernardi and Jeff Petkovich share a barrel fashioned from a 12-foot, steel-reinforced tank. Emerging unharmed, they are fined $1,000.

June 5, 1990: Jesse Sharp, unprotected by helmet or life jacket, takes a 12-foot kayak over the Falls, first making dinner reservations. His body is never found.

September 27,1993: Munday survives a second trip, this time in a red and white homemade steel barrel.

October 1, 1995: Robert "Firecracker" Overacker sets off on a Jet Ski. He dies when his rocket-propelled parachute fails.

October 20, 2003: Kirk Jones survives, with only the clothes on his back.

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