Tonawanda Police Lt. Scott Sheehan was patrolling in the department’s boat Sunday afternoon as thousands of people leisurely floated in rafts down the Niagara River when he was flagged down by another vessel.
A boat nearby had capsized and two people were in the water, Sheehan was told.
When the police boat arrived off the south end of Tonawanda Island about a minute later at 2:15 p.m., Sheehan found a jet skier trying to hold another man above water.
Diver Tom DePasquale, a member of the department’s Underwater Response Team, jumped in. “He was able to latch on to the man,” Sheehan said.
Sheehan and diver Bill Ferguson pulled them aboard and found the man, believed to be in his late 60s, to be unresponsive so they started CPR.
The city fire boat brought over a paramedic who took over CPR from Sheehan.
“I just took control of the boat and raced to the police dock where I had fire (fighters) and Twin City Ambulance meet us there,” Sheehan said.
The man was taken to the docks behind Police Headquarters, where a Fire Department medical team performed CPR. Rescuers were able to get a faint pulse and he was transported to DeGraff Hospital in North Tonawanda then later transferred to Buffalo General Medical Center, where his condition was uncertain, police said.
The man and his adult son, who were not identified by authorities, were in a 16-foot motorized rowboat watching other family members participate in FloaTilla 9, an unsanctioned flotilla event from Isle View Park to Gratwick Park, when their boat engine died. They were not part of the event, but were spectators on the water.
In their efforts to make repairs to the engine, the boat swamped and capsized, sending both men into the water, according to City of Tonawanda Police Capt. Frederic Foels. He said the boat sank in a bend where the Erie Canal opens up into the Niagara River.
“There was a lot of boat traffic in the river,” said Foels, who called the water “a little choppy.”
The son was wearing a life jacket and was able to reach shore, but the older man was not wearing a life jacket, said Foels.
Police boats from North Tonawanda, the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office and the City of Tonawanda were at the scene for the flotilla and were quickly called into service for the rescue.
Sheehan estimated there were over 1,800 floats in the floatilla event, with up to five people aboard each float. “We had literally thousands of people in the water to contend with,” he said.
Tonawanda police launched their 27-foot-long boat in 2013. The $200,000 boat manufactured by SAFE Boats International in Seattle was mostly paid for by a $139,500 port security grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and proceeds from the sale of the department’s previous boat and two police personal watercraft.
Equipped with side-scan sonar to view underwater, radar to track nearby boats and a thermal infrared camera to see in the dark, the Tonawanda Police 27-foot aluminum boat is used for rescue operations, joint work with the U.S. Border Patrol along the Niagara River and patrolling for events like Canal Fest, which wrapped up Sunday.
“Right place at the right time,” Foels said of Sunday’s rescue. “Our police boat was right there when the call came in. Real close.”
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