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Family, friends hold vigil for two lost in Niagara River

Two long days after a fishing boat capsized in the lower Niagara River, sucking its captain and a passenger into the turbulent waters, the loved ones of the missing people kept a vigil Monday at the Lewiston landing's boat launch.

As the family and friends waited for word that the bodies of boat captain Steve White, 43, of Ransomville, and Lauren Barsamian, 27, of New City, had been recovered, the other charter captains who operate out of the popular fishery tried hard to go about business as usual.

But there was no ignoring the pall that had been cast by the weekend's tragedy.

"It's got everybody sick," said captain Bruce Blakelock, 50, after he packed up his gear from taking a few customers out early Monday morning to enjoy the last few days of salmon season.

"It's a very grounding experience," said captain Joe Cinelli, 42. "It shook us all up. It really did."

Some two dozen charter captains set up shop every salmon season -- from mid-September to October -- at this landing at Lewiston, offering guided fishing trips that draw anglers from as far away as Russia, China and Japan to fish the salmon stocked by the state.

Most often, the captains steer their power boats upstream about two miles, past the massive power plants on both the U.S. and Canadian sides, which push thousands of gallons of water surging into the river, to Devil's Hole, favored by the spawning salmon.

Saturday, White took his customers, Barsamian, and her boyfriend, John Rice, 36, of Harrington Park, N.J., somewhere near Devil's Hole.

It's unclear exactly what happened, but White's 19-foot boat somehow started drifting toward the treacherous waters closer to the plants and apparently got caught in a whirlpool, suddenly flipping the boat upside down, according to police and fellow fishermen.

"I wish I knew exactly what happened," said Blakelock, who was friends with White for 25 years. "Everyone is saying it's a freak accident."

No one on board was wearing a life preserver, although there were three vests on board and ready for use.

Only Rice was saved, when a passing charter captain, Joseph V. Marra, plucked him from the water.

Marra also tried to save Barsamian, but she slipped away. White had already disappeared by the time Marra arrived in his boat and called 911 from his cell phone for help.

The waters that claimed White and Barsamian are known to the local fishermen for being tricky to navigate, with powerful whirlpools suddenly forming in the currents, especially near the power plants.

The charter captains, many of whom have been fishing the lower Niagara River for decades, said they couldn't remember an instance of a charter boat with an experienced captain capsizing there in at least 20 years.

Blakelock defended White on Monday as a skilled and smart boater who never would have put his passengers at risk intentionally and that White's grieving family was hurt by reports on TV news that seemed to suggest otherwise.

"He was a good guy," Blakelock said. "He wasn't a risk taker. . . . Something odd had to have happened."

White, a father of two teenage boys, had fished much of his life. He had a job at a Niagara Falls plant but had started doing charters part time a couple of years ago after getting his license, Blakelock said.

The captains in the area share a common code of putting safety first, even when doing so might rankle a customer or two, he explained.

"A guy will be waiting all day to hook a fish, and he finally hooks one, but if it goes into an area that's dangerous, we just tell them, 'We break it off,' " Blakelock said.

In the wake of Saturday's accident, few fishermen wore a life preservers Monday. Hardly a soul out on the boats midday Monday put on a vest, even as rescue boats scoured for the two missing people up and down the river.

"We always have life preservers on board," explained captain Chris Cinelli, 40, who like his brother operates a charter fishing business. "But they're so big and bulky. They're cumbersome."

Boating regulations require only children under age 14 to always wear a life preserver when on a water vessel. For everyone else, the law requires that there be one life preserver per adult available.

There was no consensus Monday about whether the life preservers would have helped. Blakelock thought they might have, but other captains theorized that they would only have aided in the recovery of the bodies. Many thought the unpredictable water probably played more of a role in Saturday's tragedy.

Joe Cinelli said that early Monday morning he spotted two men in an unchartered boat fishing in a drifting boat near the area where White's vessel went under.

"Are you familiar with this area?" Cinelli said he asked the two men. They replied that they weren't.

"Two people passed away here because they were sitting out here like you are," Cinelli said he told them.

They quickly started up their engine and motored away to a safer spot.


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