In a dramatic rescue attempt on Wednesday, a US coast guard diver braved the frigid rapids where a car had become submerged in water near the brink of Niagara Falls, only to find it was too late to rescue the person trapped inside.
The diver was lowered from a hovering helicopter, climbed into the car and pulled out the body of its lone occupant, a woman in her 60s, officials from New York’s state park police said.
Video and images on social media shows the coast guard diver, petty officer second class Derrian Duryea, in an orange suit and a helmet, fighting against strong wind and water to enter through the passenger side of the black car, which appeared stuck near the edge of the falls.
Duryea said he was entirely focused on the vehicle as he was being lowered for the rescue attempt.
“As I was coming down I was just really focused on how am I going to get in this car when there’s, you know, pretty much rapids coming over the car right next to Niagara Falls,” Duryea told KTLA. “My sole focus was which window or door am I going in.
“Luckily, the car was unlocked and I didn’t have to break out any windows and I was able to open up the passenger side door and push it up against the current,” Duryea said.
Kathy Hochul, the governor of New York, tweeted that she was “saddened by the tragic loss of life” and praised the “swift and heroic actions” of emergency crews.
Park police Capt Christopher Rola later called the coast guard’s work “incredible”.
The rescue was also made perilous by the icy wind coming off the falls. Helicopter pilot Lt Chris Monicelli told KTLA: “A lot of bigger planes have deicing capabilities, but we don’t”. As a result, crews train for exactly such rescue attempts, “because if you do accumulate enough ice on the helicopter, it will fall out of the sky”.
It was unclear how the car got into the Niagara River. Witnesses reported seeing it floating near a pedestrian bridge, where it was believed to have gone in. Roads in the area were slippery as a light snow fell.
The car appeared to be almost completely submerged with only part of the roof and open trunk hatch visible through the rapidly flowing water.
Police used a drone to determine it was occupied.
Authorities said the woman lived in the area. Her name was not released pending notification of her relatives.
After the recovery, the vehicle remained about 50 yards (45 metres) from the brink of the American Falls, one of three waterfalls that make up Niagara Falls. Onlookers watched as emergency crews prepared to try to pull the vehicle from the water.
Rola said the state park department’s swift-water rescue teams had been unable to get to the car because of its location.
Niagara Falls, located at the border between upstate New York and Canada, has a history of attracting both daredevils who try to cheat death by plunging over in homemade contraptions, and those driven by suicide.
Emergency crews, however, had never been called for a vehicle so close to the edge, Rola said. He said investigators would try to determine whether the vehicle wound up in the water by accident or intentionally.
• This article was amended on 9 December 2021. An earlier version said that Niagara Falls was located entirely within the US.