Two East Pembroke volunteer firefighters risked their lives Thursday night to rescue a 17-year-old boy from East Seneca who fell from a cliff face at Indian Falls.
The youth landed on a rock ledge 10 feet above the water's surface and was stuck and hurting.
With the Tonawanda River swollen with springtime runoff the water was deep and moving fast.
Don Newton, East Pembroke's chief, and Stephen Smelski, an assistant chief, and both members of the department's water rescue team, acted quickly to reach the teen.
"We were fighting the water the whole way to just even get to him," Smelski said. "The undertow in that area is tremendous. We had to fight just to get to the area where we could get to him and talk with him."
When Newton and Smelski got close to the boy they could see his legs were shaking from exposure to the cold water.
"We didn't know how much longer he could hold on," Smelski said.
Ideally, the rescue should have been a four-man operation, but Newton and Smelski decided there was no time to wait for additional rescuers to enter the water.
"Don made decision to swim to him," Smelski added. "He had one path to him. One chance to make it. He pushed off. I pushed off with him. He was able to swim to the rock ledge to get to the patient and I stayed back in case he lost it or if the patient were to come out of his arms, then I could catch him and bring him back."
Newton told the boy the he would need to make his own way from the 10-foot high ledge he was on down to a second ledge, and from there, slide down into Newton's arms and relax.
"I told him that with the swiftness of the water, if he struggled with me, we would both be dead," Newton said. "At that point, I've got to have all the control of him and my line tender has got to have control of me."
Both Newton and Smelski praised the work of the rope team, who helped keep the two rescuers safe and then safely pulled the teen to safety.
In all, more than 60 emergency responders, including other volunteers, assisted in the rescue of Matthew J. Kwiatkowski, of Pinewood Drive, East Senaca.
It was a major operation, said Bill Schutt, a coordinator with Emergency Management, because the high water and swift current of the Tonawanda this time of year.
Kwiatkowski suffered as yet undetermined injuries and was flown by Mercy Flight to ECMC.
He was at the Falls with friends Brandon T. Briley, 18, of Center Road, West Seneca, William D. Fowler, 18, of Pheasant Lane, Cheektowaga, and Adam Hawco, 17, of Center Road, West Seneca.
The four other youths were able to climb to safety after the accident.
Charges may be pending against one or more of the individuals.
Schutt said the youth's adventure tied up a lot of the county's resources for about two hours and put other people's lives at risk.
"It's extremely dangerous," Schutt said. "It looks like it's fun and it's fun when everything goes well. When something goes bad then obviously it's not fun, but it puts everybody at risk."
Responding to the scene were the Sheriff's Office, Emergency Management, Indian Falls, Pembroke, East Pembroke and Alabama fire departments. Alden's rescue team and Mercy EMS also assisted at the scene.