Joseph Nye and his girlfriend, Brenna Thomas, clung to a steel retaining wall on Tonawanda Island in the Niagara River, desperately trying to keep Nye’s grandfather above water.
The boat piloted by the grandfather, Russell W. “Smokey” Nye, had taken on water in choppy waves Sunday, sending him and his son, Daniel, overboard into the river along the North Tonawanda water intake plant.
“The waves were so bad I think it started filling the boat up and then eventually flipped it over,” said the grandson, 21, of Cambria. “They were trying to start the engine but the water was so bad.”
Despite their best efforts – and the efforts of bystanders and first responders – Russell Nye died Monday in Buffalo General Medical Center surrounded by family, some of whom were involved in the dramatic rescue. The 85-year-old Lockport man was remembered for spending his final day doing what he loved – being on a boat out on the water.
A group of Nye family and friends, including Joseph and his girlfriend, were part of a flotilla of more than 1,000 inflated tubes and rafts leisurely making their way down the river Sunday when the current and wake from passing boats pushed them to within about 15 yards of the shore.
Russell Nye and his son, who were following along in their 12-foot motorized aluminum rowboat, were about to tie off a rope to the group of tubes to pull it back into the river when the peaceful event on a sunny afternoon turned tragic.
Their motor stalled and the rowboat was pushed up against the retaining wall. Daniel Nye let go of the rope connecting the boat and tube.
“The waves were just bashing the boat against the wall,” the grandson said Wednesday. “That’s what caused it to fill up and them to fall out.”
Seeing Russell and Daniel Nye struggling to stabilize the boat against the wall, the grandson and his girlfriend decided to try to reach the men.
“We tried swimming against the current but we realized that was not possible so we went over to the wall and scaled it until we got there,” Joseph Nye recounted.
He and his girlfriend pulled themselves sideways along the retaining wall. Joseph Nye, who was wearing a life jacket, reached out to two life jackets floating nearby that had been in his grandfather’s boat. Neither Russell nor Daniel Nye were wearing life jackets at the time.
“When I swam by the boat, the whole back half was under water,” Joseph Nye said.
Meanwhile, Daniel Nye was using one hand to keep his father from slipping under water and the other hand to hold onto the wall.
The grandson and the girlfriend held onto little holes in the retaining wall with one arm while using the life jackets to try to help Daniel Nye hold the older man above water.
Someone aboard a personal watercraft arrived and the man aboard also assisted. Then, the City of Tonawanda’s police boat arrived.
“I was yelling for them to get in the water, to hurry, because I don’t think he was conscious and I don’t think he was breathing,” Joseph Nye said.
“I was panicking and telling them to hurry up.”
A diver in the Police Department’s Underwater Response Team jumped in and he and Joseph Nye pulled the grandfather to the police boat, where personnel onboard started CPR and whisked him away to the police dock.
Thomas offered thanks to everyone involved in the rescue effort. “It was a huge help,” she said. “Without them I don’t know what we would’ve done in that situation.”
The outcome could’ve been even worse if she and Joseph Nye hadn’t reached the boaters in time, Daniel Nye told his nephew.
“He said if we didn’t get there when we did that he probably would’ve went under, too, from trying to hold my granddad up,” Joseph Nye said.
The elder Nye was remembered as a “family man” who enjoyed setting up model trains that took up a whole room in his house, telling humorous stories and raising a pet pig, Wilbur, named after the “Charlotte’s Web” character.
“He was one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met,” said Thomas.
But, more than anything, he loved being out on the waters he’d navigated so many times before.
A retired truck driver, Nye took the nickname “Smokey” from his CB radio handle. He was part of the crew in 1969 who worked to divert the Niagara River to bypass the American Falls so effects of erosion could be studied, his family said.
Nye worked for Wendt’s Dairy, Rebco Steel and retired from Lockport Trucking, according to the online obituary.
He was a member and past chief of the Cambria Volunteer Fire Co. and a members of Teamsters Local 375.
He was also remembered as a loving grandfather to his 23 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren who annually took them to Martin’s Fantasy Island on Grand Island, where he gave each child $10 to spend as they pleased.
“That was always a blast and got everyone together,” said Brittany Nye, a granddaughter.
A funeral for Russell Nye will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday in Prudden and Kandt Funeral Home, 242 Genesee St., Lockport.