Just hours after a man fell to his death Tuesday at Cattaraugus Creek, Kelly Ziolkowski almost became the next casualty.
The 35-year-old Tonawanda woman lost her footing as she walked along the creek near the Forty Road parking lot near Gowanda. The creek, running fast and high after an overnight storm, swept her legs out from beneath her and carried her out of sight from Galen Kerr of Buffalo, who had accompanied her.
“It was very scary,” Kerr said when reached late Tuesday. “I was scared for her because you see somebody swept away and you can’t do anything about it.”
The friends of about 10 years had planned a fun day relaxing on a beach by the creek. From the beach, they followed some shale steps that got narrower as they reached the water. They were about to turn around when Ziolkowski slipped and fell into the rapidly flowing water.
Ziolkowski was able to sit upright nearby momentarily but couldn’t stand up. “It’s not really deep water but the current is so strong,” Kerr said. “You can’t even stand up in it.”
Kerr said he found a tree with a limb growing out over the water. “I grabbed a branch and tried to get to her but was five feet short,” he said. “I tried to ask her to swim to me. She tried, but the current was so strong she couldn’t.”
Ziolkowski instead tried floating over to a group of rocks but got swept up in the current again and carried downstream around a bend out of Kerr’s sight. “I used the tree branch to work my way back up to the parking lot and just ran and started calling 9-1-1,” Kerr said.
“I was freaking out,” he said. “I had my cell phone but I had no signal. I tried calling 9-1-1 at least six times.” He ran up to the top of a steep road where he rang the door bell at a house and pleaded with the homeowner to use his phone.
An ambulance arrived first, then police and a firefighters with a raft. A helicopter was also involved in the search.
“They were asking me why I was shaking and I’m like, ‘My friend, I don’t know if she’s drowning. I’m so worried about her,’” Kerr said. “She was pretty scared, too. I don’t know who was more scared, her or me. Probably her, because she told me she thought she was going to die.”
For rescue crews in Cattaraugus County, it was a busy day at an always popular spot that can also prove dangerous for those who are not careful. Rescue crews usually respond to about a half dozen emergencies at the gorge area near the creek every summer, at least a couple of which turn fatal, said Gowanda Fire Department Captain Tim Twichell.
Ziolkowski was lucky. Rescuers found her alive. “I don’t think a lot of us expected us to have this come out as well as it did,” Twichell said of Ziolkowski’s incident.
An earlier incident was deadly.
A man died after falling from a cliff at Cattaraugus Creek early Tuesday morning, according to the Cattaraugus County Sheriff’s Office.
“We believe it was accidental,” Capt. Shawn Gregory said.
The man died of blunt-force trauma after falling nearly 200 feet from the cliff’s edge. The Sheriff’s Office will not release his name until his family can be notified. The investigation remains ongoing as deputies await a toxicology report.
Gregory said the man and his friend were setting up camp by the man’s property near Perrysburg. He set up a camper about 15 feet away from the cliff. The friend last saw him at about 2 a.m.
At about 7:15 a.m., the friend noticed the man missing from his bed, but his car was nearby. He searched for half an hour and discovered the body at the bottom of the cliff.
The Gowanda Fire Department recovered the body using a rescue raft.
Firefighters used the same raft looking for Ziolkowski.
“There are a lot of cliffs and it’s very remote, and people don’t communicate,” Twichell said. “It gets dark about an hour before anywhere else because it’s in a gorge. Sometimes we can’t even get our radios to operate. It’s a bad area because people love to go there, but it’s got rugged terrain and it’s hard to communicate.”
It took Kerr about 10 minutes to hike up the steep country road to a nearby house and dial 911 after the creek swept away Ziolkowski. By then, Twichell feared it might already be too late.
The current carried Ziolkowski about 300 yards downstream, where she managed to grab ahold of the south bank of the creek. She had regained control of her body, but she was still trapped by rushing water and sheer cliffs on either side of the creek.
More than 50 firefighters and police officers - aided by the Erie County Sheriff’s Office helicopter – responded. About 20 minutes after the 911 call, two Gowanda firefighters floating on the rescue raft heard Ziolkowski calling for help. They found her and pulled her aboard.
The firefighters paddled the raft another four miles downstream to an area behind Gowanda Fire Chief Mark Hebner’s house. She was examined by Gowanda Ambulance and released with no injuries.
Kerr said Ziolkowski thinks her backpack filled with bottles of water, towels and food helped protect her head from hitting rocks.
“She’s bruised up, scratched up but other than that she’s totally fine,” said Kerr, who thanked emergency responders for their quick action.
“People just kept showing up and showing up,” he said. “It was awesome.”
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