The last time Luis Rodriguez encountered the Niagara River, authorities booted him out of the United States as an illegal alien.
The lanky, affable Honduran took another chance on the river Wednesday, plunging into the frigid waters off Fort Erie and swimming 150 yards to save the life of Richard Urbanski, a 67-year-old American.
Rodriguez, 23, was going to an English class when he encountered a group of onlookers watching a fisherman struggling to get back into his boat.
"I asked if any of them could swim, and they said no," Rodriguez said. "I saw it was difficult for the old man, and that's why I dove into the water.
"My parents taught me to be nice."
Rodriguez stripped off some of his clothes and jumped into the river to save Urbanski, of Williamsville.
"The water was too cold, but I did it, and I feel good," Rodriguez said.
Niagara Regional Police said the prompt response by Rodriguez, who has had only a few swimming lessons in his native Honduras, prevented a drowning. The Lake Erie temperature was 58, but police say the water where Urbanski was struggling is generally 10 degrees colder.
For Rodriguez, the rescue was the latest twist in a
journey that began when he sneaked across the American border at San Diego two years ago. He then joined friends in Manhattan, where he lived contentedly until he decided to visit Niagara Falls last summer.
"I went onto the (Rainbow) bridge, and I didn't know I couldn't return to the U.S.," he said Wednesday afternoon. "I had to pass through immigration, and they asked me for my passport. I didn't have any papers."
American officials sent him back to Canada. He spent about two weeks in a Fort Erie refugee center, La Casa, before moving into an apartment. Rodriguez liked the town and obtained a student visa to study English at Fort Erie Secondary School.
That was where he was headed Wednesday morning when he saw Urbanski in the water. Wearing the same black shirt and gray slacks he shed that morning before diving into the river, Rodriguez explained why he jumped in without hesitation.
Rodriguez said it was not the first time he leapt into a river to save a life; he said he had rescued a non-swimmer in Honduras four years ago. But the temperature in the Niagara was a shocking change from what he was accustomed to in the tropics.
"I was nervous, too," he said, "but sometimes you have to do what's necessary. When I got to the boat, the old man was very nervous. I told him everything will be all right."
Rodriguez said he has applied for a permanent visa to remain in Canada and would like to revisit the United States someday, this time legally.