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First-responders use helicopter to rescue tourist from Niagara River gorge

NIAGARA FALLS – State Park Police and Niagara Falls firefighters used a helicopter Sunday to help evacuate a New Jersey tourist who may have suffered a concussion when he slipped into the Niagara River in the gorge near the Whirlpool Rapids.

Perry Mortillite, 44, was airlifted by Erie County Sheriff’s helicopter from the Flat Rock area of Whirlpool State Park to Deveaux Field above the gorge, where he was transported by Rural/Metro Medical Services ambulance to Erie County Medical Center in Buffalo for observation.

He had a bleeding gash on his right temple, “right in the soft spot,” but medical personnel had bandaged that, said Capt. Frank Eugeni, of Niagara Falls Fire Truck 2. “One side of him was wet,” he said.

However, Mortillite was “just acting weird” – even claiming to recognize the fire officials personally – and demonstrating an “altered mental status,” Eugeni said. So officials opted to call in the helicopter rather than walk him up to the top of the river gorge. He was taken for observation in case of a possible concussion, as is standard practice with head injuries, Eugeni said.

Mortillite had been visiting with his wife and children, and apparently slipped, fell into the water and hit a rock. He climbed out of the water with his family’s help, and received assistance from other people before the Park Police were able to respond to a call.

“We gave him a bag of ice for his head,” said Lorie Niethe of Burt, who was passing by with her husband, Donald. “He was already out by the time we got there. He was soaking wet.”

Park Police arrived, and radioed up for medical attention, “so we knew what equipment to bring down, what assessment to make when we got there,” said Capt. Joe Pedulla, of Niagara Falls Fire Engine 3. “At that time we made the call to bring the helicopter down rather than try to carry him up.”

Ben and Kathryn Schaffer of Cheektowaga saw the rescue team heading down the steps from the upper trail with the stretcher, and then “the helicopter went down low” a short time later.

Pedulla, dripping with perspiration and catching his breath after climbing about 200 feet back up the gorge wall on the serpentine set of steps, said gorge rescues or extractions always are difficult because of the terrain. But Sunday’s high temperatures and humidity made it harder than usual.

“Any day down in the gorge is a difficult rescue,” Pedulla said. “Inclement weather, one way or the other, adds to that danger, whether it’s heat or cold, snow, ice or wet. Today, it was the heat and humidity.”

The scene was a half-mile upriver from the base of the steps, and the trail is neither level nor completely dry.

“It was very strenuous on our guys going down and coming up. That also factored in having the helicopter come,” Pedulla said. “To package him, carry him back over rough terrain and then up the stairs, for his safety and well-being, it was better to have the helicopter.”