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Rep. John J. LaFalce on Monday asked the Bush administration to permanently station a Coast Guard rescue helicopter in the Buffalo Niagara region, saying that it could prove critical to saving lives.

In a letter to Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, the Town of Tonawanda Democrat said his interest in stationing a rescue helicopter at the Niagara River was raised when two Coast Guardsmen perished March 23 while on patrol in Lake Ontario.

"The men were in the water for six hours before rescue teams found them," LaFalce wrote to Mineta, a former Democratic colleague in the House.

The Coast Guardsmen, Scott Chism, 25, and Chris Ferreby, 23, died of hypothermia caused by exposure to the frigid waters.

"I believe the tragic loss of these two men attests to the critical need for enhanced search and rescue in the Buffalo Niagara region and, in particular, the need for a Coast Guard helicopter stationed there to support the Buffalo and Niagara Falls stations," he said.

Currently, the nearest Coast Guard helicopters are stationed in Detroit and Cape Cod, Mass. LaFalce said the Coast Guard's presence in the area stretching from Erie, Pa., to Oswego would be enhanced if a copter were permanently stationed at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Base.

LaFalce said he mentioned the need for the copter to Mineta after attending a memorial service for the Coast Guardsmen in March.

In this year's federal budget, Congress cut appropriations for the Coast Guard's search and rescue operations from $455 million in fiscal 2000 to $388 million in fiscal 2001, which ends Sept. 30. President Bush's proposed budget for fiscal 2002 would increase search-and-rescue funds to $407 million.

LaFalce said he hopes that the Bush administration will explore ways to cooperate with Canada to protect the international waterways. "But our immediate priority . . . is to examine whether the Coast Guard's resources in the region are sufficient to conduct search-and-rescue operations in these often dangerous . . . waters."

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