There was a moment when Kevin Caffery, at the controls of the rescue helicopter, locked eyes with the man desperately struggling to keep from being swept over Niagara Falls. "My partner and I were sure this poor guy was going over," said Caffery, a captain in the Erie County Sheriff's Department.
And then, incredibly, as the man slipped, he was able to grab onto yet another rock in the icy water. He was less than a foot from the edge of the falls and pleading, "Please, please don't lose me," when he was saved.
The 48-year-old man, whom authorities declined to identify, had slid down an icy slope into the water. He was reported to be in stable condition Thursday at the Niagara Falls Medical Center, where he was being treated for severe hypothermia.
After the rescue, which took almost two hours Wednesday night, many of the 50 people who participated in the effort hugged each other and cheered.
"I have been doing this search and rescue for a lot of years," said Caffery, chief pilot for the sheriff's office. "I have never seen anything like this. This guy had a guardian angel sitting on his shoulder."
Authorities said the man fell from Terrapin Point on Goat Island on the U.S. side of Horseshoe Falls, skidding about 20 feet from the shoreline to about 5 feet from the edge of the falls, which plunge 170 feet. New York State Park Police summoned the helicopter when they were unable to pull the man to safety.
"He was taken through the rapids, and at the last second he managed to grab onto a rock," Caffery said. "The rock was under water. He was able to pull himself up, and was standing in water up to his thighs."
Attempts to save the man with a rescue basket dangling from the helicopter failed.
"He was so close to the brink, every time I attempted to move close to him, the helicopter went over the brink of the falls and got a tremendous draft of swirling air and it was impossible to control the helicopter," the pilot said.
After consultations with rescue personnel onshore, Caffery and his partner Art Litzinger, a tactical flight officer, decided to touch down gently on an icy outcrop of land at the edge of the falls.
Firemen handed a rescue ring with a rope to Litzinger in a back seat of the helicopter as other police and firefighters attached to ropes and wearing insulated suits waded into the water.
Darkness was fast approaching when the helicopter lifted off.
"I flew backward and we dropped the rescue ring to him," Caffery said in a phone interview Thursday. "Just before we dropped it, the overwash from the helicopter knocked the subject off his feet, and he slid to less than a foot from the brink. It was unbelievable, he was able to grab onto another rock."
The helicopter made another pass. This time, the man managed to hold on to the ring while the rescuers in the water were able to pull him to shore.
"We were screaming in the helicopter when he grabbed that rescue ring," Caffery said. "That was the last hope. Our aircraft is called Air One. The rescuers on the shore said, 'If you can't get him Air One, he is going to go.' "