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CREEK'S DANGER UNABATED YEARS AFTER 4 DROWNINGS LAWSUITS PREVENT REMEDIAL ACTION, U.S. SAYS

After four drownings in a section of Buffalo Creek in West Seneca, a 1992 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study outlined steps to make the stream less dangerous.

Three-and-a-half years after the study, nothing has been done, and the fast-flowing water again poses a hazard -- as it does every spring -- to anyone tempted to venture into the creek and to rescuers who might come to their aid.

"We're coming into a very dangerous season, when people are tempted to go in. The water level is high and it looks like fun," said John Whitney of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

"Buffalo Creek is not a stream for boating or rafting, for reasons of safety and lack of public access," he stressed.

The lack of action is the result of lack of funds and lawsuits stemming from two of the drownings, said Whitney.

Lawyers for the agency, part of the U.S. Agriculture Department and formerly called the Soil Conservation Service, "have told us we can't pursue remediation until the litigation is settled," Whitney said.

Gayle McBurney is the mother of Edward Fibich, 22, who drowned with his best friend, Joseph Flanagan, 25, while rafting on inner tubes April 22, 1991, in Buffalo Creek between Union Road and Mineral Springs Road.

As the fourth anniversary of their deaths approaches, Mrs. McBurney is concerned about the inaction.

"I don't think the lawsuit should be an issue. The government should be more concerned about preventing more tragedies and lawsuits," said Mrs. McBurney, who has expressed her concern in a letter to Whitney, the federal conservation representative at East Aurora.

"My only motive is to spare some other family what we went through," she said, adding that she is not a party to the lawsuit which seeks compensation for Fibich's widow and children, and Flanagan's child.

Mrs. McBurney says she agrees with the argument that people should stay out of the creek. But the fast currents have a great attraction to many young people, she notes.

Her son and his friend were wearing wet suits and life preservers and drowned anyway, she said. Every spring, even when there are no drownings, rescuers pull people from Western New York creeks, some wearing no protective gear, she adds.

In 1987, a 19-year-old woman boater and a West Seneca volunteer firefighter, Louis Flury, 22, who was trying to rescue her, drowned in the same section of Buffalo Creek.

The four drownings occurred just downstream from five low dams, called sills, which were built in 1953 by the federal government to reduce erosion of the creek banks and resulting sediment in Buffalo Harbor.

The silt beneath the sill farthest downstream wore away, increasing the depth of the water and creating a whirlpool effect, according to the lawsuits against Erie and Wyoming counties and the Town of West Seneca. The suits in State Supreme Court allege the counties and the town failed to maintain the creek in a safe condition and failed to warn the public of the danger.

The land in West Seneca bordering the creek is privately owned. One landowner, Conrail, denied a request to permit installation of a warning sign on its property, Whitney said.

"If we see young people getting ready to go in the creek, or we get calls, we will get them out," West Seneca Police Chief John D. Miskovski said.

Administrative claims have been filed against the federal government, and it is potentially involved in the litigation, so its lawyers have recommended that no action be taken at this time, Whitney said.

The 1992 Corps of Engineers study suggested five possible methods of reducing the current in the vicinity of the sills, including channeling, a cascade weir and reopening a curving channel closed in 1953. The study did not include cost figures.

Additional studies are needed to evaluate the five alternatives for costs and effectiveness, Whitney said.

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