July 19, 2013
Jim Honeycutt was a construction foreman in Niagrara, New York, in July, 1960. He offered a Saturday afternoon boat ride to one of the carpenters he supervised. Frank Woodward and his wife begged off, but their children eagerly accepted. Seventeen-year old Deanne Woodward and her seven-year old brother, Roger, pleaded to be allowed to go. Their parents knew that Jim was a powerful swimmer and experienced lifeguard, so they said yes. But only if the children wore their lifejackets. It was Roger’s first boat ride. He begged Jim Honeycutt to let him take off the hot, sticky lifejacket, but Jim had promised the lad’s parents. Jim did let Roger steer the boat, however, and the boy thrilled to the feel of the 7 ½ horsepower Evinrude outboard. They went down the Niagara River, passed under the Grand Island Bridge, and headed out to explore Goat Island. Jim resumed the helm, but soon, the boat got into trouble. A squealing sound indicated that the boat’s propeller had sheared off. Now, they were without power in the in the strong river current.
A leading Canadian writer, Pierre Berton, tells the story in dramatic detail in his acclaimed book, Niagara: A History of the Falls. As the children panicked, Jim Honeycutt reassured them: “Don’t be scared; I’ll hold you.” Moments later, all three boaters were thrown into the churning waters. And being carried downstream.
Deanne was not a strong swimmer, but she made for the shore. There, a vacationing New Jersey bus driver, John Hayes, dropped his camera and crawled through the guard rails to reach out to Deanne. “Someone help me,” she yelled, “and help my brother!” John Hayes hooked a leg over the railing and reached out to Deanne. “Swim for your life, girl!” John Hayes commanded, now reaching so far out that he was at risk of falling into the raging river. John Hayes managed to grab Deanne. She held on tightly to his thumb and two fingers. He called for help. Others watched, frozen.
Not John Quatrocchi, a Pennsylvania steelworker. He stepped forward. Quatrocchi was a veteran of five European campaigns in World War II. Quatrocchi leaped over the barricade and, with only the toes of his shoes clinging to the river bank, helped John Hayes pull Deanne to shore.
Deanne’s first thought was of her little brother. “Pray for him,” Quatrocchi told the girl.
She did. Right there, on Goat Island, she knelt down and prayed for Roger.
Roger went over the Falls. Fifty years later, Roger described his experience to the Toronto Star:
“One minute you’re being dragged under water, you can’t breathe, you can’t get to air, you can’t get up,” says Woodward, remembering the moment. “You’re upside-down, you’re thrown around, then you come flying out of the water like somebody just spit you out. Then you just fall back into the water and it starts all over again.”
The boy lost track of Deanne and Honeycutt as he was tugged through the roaring water. But as he got closer to the falls, it calmed. He glanced towards Goat Island, the land mass separating the American and Canadian falls. Woodward could see people running, trying to get to Deanne. No one was helping him. “I was angry because I was screaming as loud as I could for help and nobody would do anything. Of course, I didn’t know I was headed to the brink of the falls,” he says. He was alone in the water. Anger turned to surrender. Cold and then fatigue took hold of the 55-pound boy and there was nothing anyone could do. “I realized I was going to die,” says Woodward. “I thought about my dog, I thought about what few toys I had, I thought about my mom and dad and how sad they were going to be when they found out that I died. And there was just total peace.”
Woodward then entered what he calls a cloud — what actually was a 167-foot drop down Horseshoe Falls. Engulfed in mist and unable to see, he had no sense of falling.
And then there was silence.”
John Quatrocchi watched from the heights of Goat Island as the famous tour boat,
Maid of the Mists II, changed course and made for a little figure in a red lifejacket, swimming vigorously toward her. Captain Clifford Keech had heard the “Man Overboard” cry of a crewman and responded with speed.
Seeing the boy clamber aboard the Maid, Quatrocchi told Deanne her prayers had been answered.
Jim Honeycutt didn’t make it. He was swept over the Falls, too. His body was found four days later. But in his last act, he had pressed the children to put on those lifejackets.
Twenty years later, in 1980, Roger Woodward was a Navy veteran of Vietnam. He went to a prayer service with a friend who was a member of an Evangelical youth group. Sitting in the pew, he prayed a simple prayer welcoming Jesus into his life as his Lord and Savior.
Still later, in 1990, Roger Woodward returned to Niagara Falls, Ontario, and there gave a powerful testimony: Why was he spared? “So that I could live again…so that others would come to the saving knowledge of Christ and have the gift of eternal life.”
Roger Woodward was the first human being known to survive a plunge over the Falls. Doubtless there had been Indians, perhaps even some of the local Tuscarora, who had thus survived. And several others have been documented since.
Still, little Roger’s “Miracle” was the most dramatic story my wife and I brought away from our recent trip to Niagara Falls. In another wondrous testimonial, John Hayes, a black man, risked his life for a stranger, a young white girl. We need more stories like that in our lives. John Quatrocchi, also hero of the story, knew what Deanne had needed most on the heights of Goat Island: prayer. And so do we all.