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Teen missing after swim in lower river

An 18-year-old Niagara Falls man was still missing Thursday evening after he disappeared while swimming under the Whirlpool Bridge with three friends at 7:40 p.m. Wednesday.

A search for John G. Onofrio was conducted by air, boat and helicopter until 1 a.m. Wednesday and continued throughout the day Thursday.

According to his friends, ages 14, 15 and 16, Onofrio said he was tired and the 16-year-old swam out into the river to help him, but lost sight of him.

His friends told police they were celebrating because Onofrio was set to start a new job and was looking forward to it.

Parks police say the area where Onofrio disappeared is a section of the Lower Niagara River that has been used by generations as a swimming hole, even though it is illegal to swim there.

The youths had been swimming off of Twin Rock. Rescue efforts began in the area of Twin Rock, Butterfly Rock and Last Chance Rock under the Whirlpool Bridge, and went to Devil's Hole in Lewiston.

Lt. Patrick Moriarty, who is leading the State Parks swift water rescue effort, called the rapids area north of the bridge, "a treacherous rapids, not a level five or six, but off the scale."

"It's moving very quickly," Moriarty said. "If you are in the main current it's OK, but if you break the main current, unless you are an excellent swimmer, you can't fight it. It will pull you down the river towards the middle of the river. There's rocks the size of houses in there. The danger facing you there is like swimming above the falls. It's unforgiving."

He said the parks police regularly send officers out to stop people from swimming in the area, noting they charge adults with a crime for swimming there, but can only warn young people and take them home.

The joint gorge rescue teams from New York State Parks and Ontario Parks had planned a mock rescue in the upper river Thursday. Instead, they joined forces in a real search-and-rescue mission.

"We have to train with our state-of-the-art equipment. All rescues are different. You have to survey the scene and come up with a plan," said Moriarty.

He said for eight hours on Thursday, the international force conducted a foot-by-foot search of the gorge -- a hike covering an area of 8 to 10 miles. Erie County Sheriff's Air One Helicopter also searched throughout the day. The Coast Guard will continue to monitor the river to its base in Youngstown.

Rescue teams from Niagara Falls Police, Lewiston Fire Department No. 1 and Niagara County sheriff's deputies also participated.

Moriarty said surveillance will continue and tourist helicopters have also been alerted.

"I'm still saying missing person," he said. "I never assume and always wait for the facts. We will keep checking."

e-mail: nfischer@buffnews.com

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