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PARKS POLICE HONE TECHNIQUES FOR GORGE AND RIVER RESCUES

While it's against the law to climb down the walls of the Niagara River Gorge or enter the roiling currents above the American cataracts, there's a crew of people that spends about two weeks each year doing just that.

It's a dangerous business.

But somebody has to do it because other people do stupid things like drinking too much before taking a scenic walk in the gorge or steering their boats into the danger zones of the Upper Niagara. And sometimes, people just have accidents or find their lives too sad to go on.

Then the job of rescuing people from the gorge and the river or recovering their remains falls to the eight-member State Parks Police Swift Water-Gorge Rescue Team.

And they believe in the principle that practice makes perfect.

"We have to practice," Sgt. Patrick Moriarty, the team leader, said. "Nothing spells failure more than a lack of training."

In late September, Moriarty and his team spent five days battling the river and rappelling down gorge walls simulating rescues and testing out the equipment -- ropes, harnesses, boats and ladders -- they must depend on if they hope to get mishap victims and themselves to safety.

Moriarty said the repetition involved in training makes officers so familiar with the things they need to know that it becomes almost second nature. Practice also shows which equipment works best in certain situations and, even more important, which equipment doesn't work.

"We had a ladder we were going to use for swift water rescues and found out it wasn't heavy enough. It broke," Moriarty said. It will be replaced with a heavier ladder that will be strong enough for victims and officers to use to climb up into the team's rescue boats.

Team members recently spent a day in wet suits repeatedly jumping into the swift currents near Grand Island so they could be rescued from the nasty waters by their fellow officers in one of the Parks Police rescue boats.

Practicing gorge rescues in bad weather also helps.

Officers Clyde Doty, Thomas Franz and Julio Lebron, three of the team's more experienced officers, demonstrate the "practice makes perfect" philosophy.

Smiling in a driving rain, the trio, harnessed securely and manipulating their special ropes, dropped 80 feet to the gorge floor in a blink by rappelling off the gorge's rock wall, descending faster than mountain goats. They've done it many times before and have the technique down pat, Moriarty said.

Moriarty's no slouch either. He makes it look easy as he descends the sheer wall first, explaining proper safety procedures to his team and how to use equipment before touching down softly despite the effort and focus required to perform the feat.

It's slippery out there and dangerous, but the novices, officers Lisa Marrone and William Scribner, make it without problems and only a bit more slowly. Officers Brian Nisbet and James Cudek complete the team.

Even Parks Police Chief Vincent Iacovitti and Lt. Donald Compton, who are not team members, follow suit. They make it, but Compton slips on the loose, wet surface of the gorge wall just below its lip and momentarily tips sideways, banging his elbow against the rock wall. He recovers his balance, however, and successfully makes the descent. Later he learns he suffered a stress fracture to his elbow. He'll be fine.

Moriarty said the team tries to conduct organized practice sessions in the spring and fall to polish their rescue and recovery techniques.

In the past three years, the team has conducted 69 rescue or recovery missions in the Niagara River or the gorge, Iacovitti said. He said 21 occurred in 1995 and 22 in 1996; so far in 1997, there have already been 27. Of those rescues, 46 were marine operations and 23 gorge operations.

"People expect the Parks Police are going to respond to any type of gorge rescue. Actually we are the first responder because most of the land (along the river) from Niagara Falls to Artpark is park property," Iacovitti said.

"Once we get there and assess the situation, we may need special assistance -- maybe even a helicopter. But we make that determination at the scene," Iacovotti said. He said Niagara Falls firefighters are often called in to assist with personnel and equipment.

Iacovitti said he and Compton practiced with the rescue team because "The brass (officers in charge) needs to know and experience things ourselves so we know what's going on and how to handle a situation.

"If there's a situation where there could be serious injuries to our officers, we need to huddle and decide whether to do it. We need to know when to call it (a rescue) off (and try some other strategy). It's our call," Iacovitti said.

"The object is to get to someone as fast as you can without taking risks and to help someone who needs us," Iacovitti said.

Even when officers get to a victim, its not always easy to get him or her out.

In one instance this summer, a woman who had been drinking climbed over a gorge fence, then fell down to a ledge on the rock wall, injuring herself. Officers had to rappel down the gorge at Devil's Hole State Park and carry the woman out in a special basket.

In another instance, Moriarty said his men had to rescue a 250-pound man who fell into the gorge near the city's old wastewater treatment plant and broke his back.

"He had no idea how he got into that predicament. He states that he picked up a chill pack (12 cans of beer) at about noon, drank it and lost consciousness. At some point he fell and woke up at the bottom of the gorge with no clothes on and a broken back," Moriarty said.

He said the rescue was difficult for his team because "he was so big and there was no trail" to follow. "We had to carry him over rocks and (fallen) trees. We had to lower him to the river and put him in a 12-foot skiff" sent over by the Maid of the Mist Corp. to assist in the rescue.

As in the two cases he cited, Iacovitti said, "Fifty to 60 percent of the rescues we make are situations involving alcohol. Over half (the total rescue situations in the gorge and river) are avoidable just by following the parks' rules and regulations."

Moriarty said people do not seem to realize how dangerous the river and the gorge can be. The river currents can reach 10 to 15 miles per hour in places and there's always the danger of rock slides if someone decides to leave the normal gorge path, Iacovitti said. Rescue team members always wear hard hats to protect themselves from falling rocks.

There are only three approved paths in and out of the gorge, Moriarty said. They are at the Devil's Hole, Whirlpool State Park and Artpark. And there is only one approved trail to follow at the base of the gorge.

If a person leaves the trail or tries to enter and leave the gorge by any other means, it may turn into a problem and the rescue team may be called in.

Moriarty said that's why people who decide not to take the beaten path can be charged with "failure to use established ways," a parks violation with a penalty of a $100 fine or 16 days in jail or both.

"If you stick to the path, you should be OK. Any other area is prohibited and you can be charged," Moriarty said.

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