A recent Lockport High School graduate, who ventured into the Erie Canal to retrieve his fishing pole Wednesday night, panicked when he was unable to back out and drowned, authorities said.
David L. Draper, 18, of Works Place, was fishing at about 10 p.m. with two friends from a dock near the Exchange Street Bridge when he entered the canal.
However, Draper -- a non-swimmer -- went into an area of the canal with a steep drop-off and a concrete retaining wall, Lockport police Detective Lt. Scott Seekins said.
"Once you are in the water there, you can't get back out where you got in," Seekins said. "It is straight up and down. There is nothing to climb onto. You have to go down the canal, one way or another, to some rocks to find your way out."
It is unclear, based on witness accounts, how long Draper was in the water before he went under. One witness said three to five minutes, and another said as long as 15 minutes, police said.
None of the three fishermen at the scene knew how to swim, Seekins said, and tried to talk Draper out of entering the canal.
Capt. Richard Podgers, chief of detectives, said Draper's companions tried unsuccessfully to retrieve the fishing pole using their pole.
Then, Draper reportedly said, "I'll get it," Seekins said. "They told him, 'This isn't good idea -- don't get in there.' "
"It can't be that deep here," Draper reportedly said.
"He was panicking, and they were trying to reach him with their fishing poles so he could grab on," Podgers added. "Apparently, he got a hold of one pole, but it was the type that comes apart. That failed, and then he slipped [under] the water. He was at arm's length."
Had it been during the day, Podgers said, Draper might have been able to see that there were rocks, and he could have climbed out a short distance away -- but not at night, particularly after panic set in.
Draper's body was recovered by a Niagara County sheriff's dive team just before midnight, about 90 minutes after the team was called to the scene. Lockport police officers and firefighters also assisted in the search.
Draper, who graduated from Lockport High School last month, worked at the Lockport Presbyterian Home.
He is survived by his parents, Glen and Theresa, and three sisters, Tiffany Ann Balcom, Joyce Marie and Rosemary.
News Staff Reporter Janice L. Habuda contributed to this report.