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Specter of suicide hovering over falls; Allure of world wonder burdened by new case of life abruptly ended

A day after a 40-year-old man miraculously survived a suicide attempt over the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, a second person Tuesday plunged to his apparent death, this time over the American Falls.

The suicide Tuesday morning appears to have been a copycat and the latest in a recent uptick in suicides at the mighty cataracts, authorities said.

"It's unusual, but it's happened before," said Lt. Patrick B. Moriarty of the State Parks Police. "We're running a little high."

With much national and international media attention focused on the falls in recent weeks, some wonder whether Nik Wallenda's planned wire-walking stunt has given the distraught the idea of ending their lives in a high-profile way.

Some who have lost a loved one to suicide at Niagara Falls say the death there causes more agony for families because of the challenges of rescue or recovery in the Niagara Gorge.

But what Wallenda says he does is inspirational -- and that it shouldn't make people want to risk or end their lives at the falls.

"I'm encouraging people to live life to the fullest," Wallenda said. "I'm doing the impossible, which is what a lot of people feel they can't do because they're depressed. Me making it across the wire and living shows people that they can achieve anything."

While previous estimates indicated one to two suicides per week occurring at the falls, State Parks Police said Tuesday that they typically see up to nine suicide attempts from the American side each year and that four already have occurred this year.

The number on both sides of the falls could reach between 20 and 30 each year, authorities have told the families of suicide victims.

The man who survived the 167-foot plunge Monday was airlifted in Ontario to Hamilton General Hospital, where spokeswoman Agnes Bongers said he was listed in critical condition but was expected to survive. Police are searching for the body of the man who jumped over the American Falls on Tuesday.

Is the publicity over the Wallenda stunt a contributing factor?

"It's a good point," said Timothy M. Osberg, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Niagara University. "It's something else that kind of gets the falls out there, kind of plants a seed in people's minds."

Others, though, said Tuesday's incident was more likely a copycat from the previous day and not a correlation between Wallenda and suicides.

"I doubt it," said Steven L. Dubovsky, chairman of the department of psychiatry at the University at Buffalo. "It might have just reminded people that the falls are there. I doubt it would make people want to jump into the falls. If you had people doing daredevil things, then you'd say, 'Maybe they've been inspired by Wallenda.' "

Some of those who have experienced a suicide in the family say Wallenda's planned stunt only adds to their pain.

"It just boggles the mind that he would do something so dangerous in such a forum where people have lost so many people they love," said a 29-year-old Niagara Falls resident who asked not to be identified because of the stigma of suicide on her family.

The woman, whose brother died in February after plunging over the American Falls, said his body was not found for nearly two months.

"It's a bit of a slap in the face for me and all our family," the woman said. "I know this is his living and this is what he does, but I don't think he really takes into regard how dangerous what he's doing really is."

Wallenda, though, has made it clear that this is not his intention.

"I think it's a sad situation people come to that point in life," he said. "I wish that didn't happen."

Mayor James M. Diodati of Niagara Falls, Ont., said that people jump over the falls a few times each month but that they are rarely publicized to ensure privacy for families and discourage copycat attempts.

"What I do know is that it's not as uncommon as I wish it was," Diodati said. "I hope this individual takes it as a sign that life's worth living and there's nothing that bad."

Often, bodies are not recovered for weeks or years because of the mix of jagged rocks, whirlpools and deep suction under the Niagara River. Some who commit the act feel they'll spare their families the horror of finding their bodies at home.

But others say that because of the challenges involved in recovering bodies from the gorge, a Niagara Falls death causes even more agony. Many bodies wash up at Lewiston or Fort Niagara, and some are never found.

"All those weeks we never found [my brother], there was no closure for us," the Niagara Falls woman said. "And then when we did find [the body], it was grieving all over again. It's a horrible thing to go through, and it's not something I would wish on my worst enemy."

Moriarty, of the Parks Police, said media coverage of a suicide at the falls generally results in an uptick in attempts over the next few days.

It leads to a debate about whether to give publicity to these incidents, which are often viewed by hundreds of people in public parks around the falls. But Douglas B. Fabian, executive director of Crisis Services in Buffalo, believes that in most cases, suicidal individuals have had long battles with mental illness.

"We like to think that it's good to talk about. It's good to write about it," Fabian said. "One article is not going to drive a potentially suicidal person to the edge, but it will raise the consciousness of a lot of people."

Blue suicide and crisis hotline phones are available throughout Niagara Falls State Park. Crisis Services can be reached at 834-3131 in Erie County and at 285-3515 in Niagara County.

The lure to Niagara Falls for suicide attempts is its reputation as a world-renowned tourist attraction, psychiatrists said. In that sense, it's similar to other famous sites where people have taken their lives, such as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

"You get a lot more people who jump off the Golden Gate Bridge than Niagara Falls," UB's Dubovsky said. "These are well-known places to jump from, and someone looking for notoriety or to make a public statement will jump from places like this."

Most of the time, though, the notoriety escapes them, as media outlets do not generally publish the details of suicides.

Mayor Paul A. Dyster wondered whether any crush of publicity -- not just from Wallenda, but from other situations such as the future of the Maid of the Mist or the first gay group wedding -- could have an effect on the suicide numbers.

"Even as man is taming the falls," Dyster said, "there's still so much about Niagara Falls we don't know about, including the psychological effect on people it has."

email: cspecht@buffnews.com and jrey@buffnews.com

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Suicide hotlines

Help is available at these suicide prevention hotline numbers 24 hours a day:

*In Erie County, call Crisis Services at 834-3131
*In Niagara County, call Crisis Services at 285-3515