Falls fire captain and firefighter are state’s Firefighters of the Year
By Rick Pfeiffer email@example.com
Niagara Gazette — To hear Falls Fire Department Capt. John Carey and Firefighter Bart DeRosa tell the story, what happened on May 6 was “just another day at work.”
Of course it was “just another day at work” if you believe jumping into the swift and violent rapids above the American falls to rescue a suicidal man is ordinary.
The New York State Professional Firefighters Association concluded that what Carey and DeRosa did that day was extraordinary and selected them as their Co-Firefighters of the Year. They received the awards at a ceremony last week in Syracuse.
“Really, if it wasn’t for the award, it would have been just another day at work,” DeRosa said as he and Carey talked about the rescue at the department’s Ontario Street fire hall.
Carey was equally modest about the honor.
“I’m very appreciative,” the veteran fire captain said. “It’s a little uncomfortable because I know what all (the other firefighters on the crew) did that day. We work as a team.”
As for the danger involved in the rescue, Carey said simply, “Any rescue at the falls is going to be dramatic.”
On this particular rescue, Carey and DeRosa were working with the rest of the crew assigned to Truck 1 and Engine 4, under the command of Battalion Chief Greg Colangelo. The call of a man standing in the rapids had come in a little bit after midnight.
“The Park Police were on the scene when we arrived and they told us to post upstream because (the man in the water) was agitated,” Carey said.
The man was about 40 yards upstream from the brink of the American falls, so the firefighters moved to a position 20 yards closer to the brink and about 10 yards from the water’s edge. Carey and DeRosa donned safety harnesses and the other firefighters deployed rescue lines for them to latch onto.
Then, for the next six hours, the firefighters watched and waited as Park Police Lt. Patrick Moriarty and Sgt. Tom Franz tried to talk the troubled 33-year-old Long Island man back to the shoreline. The mist from the falls was drenching the firefighters and the air was chilly.
“I just can’t say enough about (the firefighters),” Moriarty said. “They had all that gear on, it was cold, it was wet, we’d been out there a long time and they just stood by and stayed ready.”
DeRosa recalled that the incident did not seem out of the ordinary.
“We’ve had calls like this before where the guy walked out (of the water),” DeRosa said. “So you don’t think you’re going to be pulling someone out of the river.”
Carey agreed. The 22-year fire department vet said, in his experience, when someone talks to negotiators for the length of time this man had, they rarely jump over the falls.
“(The negotiators) had worked their way down to him,” Carey said. “We thought they were just gonna grab him.”
The man, whose name was not released, had called 911 and told a dispatcher that he was going to kill himself by going over the falls. The man said he had left personal belongings in his car for police to find.
Because he had reached out for help before jumping, there was hope he’d come back to the shore. DeRosa said he had been keeping his eyes on the interaction between Moriarty, Franz and the man.
“They said they thought he was going to come out,” DeRosa said. “Then Pat turned away from him for a second and he dove in (to the water). I jumped over the (safety) rail and I said, ‘John, he went in.’ “
Once they went over the rail, Carey and DeRosa began to run to the edge of the rapids.
“It was really a surprise,” Carey said. “I could see (the man bobbing in the waters of the rapids) and there was panic on his face. You could tell he was trying to stop himself and make it back to the edge (of the water).”
The firefighters still on the shore tended to Carey and DeRosa’s rescue lines, trying to give them enough slack to reach the man but still keeping lines taut to keep them safe.
“There’s no time to talk or explain,” Carey said. “(The firefighters on the shore) just deployed their ropes and did everything perfectly.”
Then, as the man bobbed in the turbulence, he began to move back toward the shoreline.
“He was tumbling down the river, but you could see he was trying to come back,” Carey said.
DeRosa yelled for the other firefighters to “give me more slack” on the safety line and he jumped into the rushing water, in front of the flailing man. Carey also leapt into the water, behind the man.
“We intercepted him about 30 feet from the brink of the (American) falls,” Carey said. “Then we picked him up and pulled him to the shore.”
Both Carey and DeRosa admitted they never thought about how close they were to going over the falls.
“I was just happy he was there for us to grab,” DeRosa said. “I knew we were close, but I didn’t think we were that close.”
The firefighters said the entire rescue took no more than 20 to 30 seconds.
“He was lucky,” Moriarty said of the man. “If he had stayed where he was in the water, (and the firefighters hadn’t reached him) he’d have gone over (the brink of the falls).”
The man was taken to Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center for treatment and a mental health evaluation. He reportedly told people afterward he was sorry he had put the firefighters lives in danger in order to rescue him.
“The job the firefighters did was incredible,” Moriarty said. “It just shows how valuable the training that we (Park Police and Falls firefighters) do is. This is what we train for.”
And for the Professional Firefighters Association Firefighters of the Year, it was “just another day at work.”