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Watch: Army helicopter hoists snagged 3,500-pound pontoon from Niagara River rapids

A NY Army National Guard CH-47 Chinook helicopter hauls water out of Lake Ontario, near Hamlin, NY, May 6, 2020. (Army National Guard Photo by Capt. Avery Schneider)

It took only five minutes to remove a 3,500-pound chunk of steel that had been stuck above the American Falls for the past 39 months.

A powerful Army helicopter, its rotors churning up the already rough Niagara River rapids with nearly hurricane-force winds, hoisted the pontoon from the rapids Wednesday afternoon.

The pontoon, which broke away from the Lake Erie ice boom during a February 2019 windstorm, had been snagged beside Bird Island, about 100 yards from the brink of Niagara Falls. Authorities spent the past four months planning how to remove it.

The helicopter deposited the long steel tube in an empty parking lot at the east end of Goat Island, where it was loaded onto a truck and hauled back to the New York Power Authority’s ice boom storage area on Hamburg Street in Buffalo.

The lift was no sweat for the Chinook CH-47D helicopter, whose hauling capacity is 13 tons, and not all that challenging for the aviators of Detachment 1, Company B, 3rd Battalion, 126th Aviation Regiment.

“There’s very minimal risk,” Army National Guard Lt. Col. Eric Fritz told reporters before the mission.

“The biggest risk is the trees. We have extra crew members on board to make sure it’s not going to hit the trees,” Fritz said.

Shortly before 3 p.m., the twin-rotor Chinook, which creates a breeze of about 70 mph, hovered over the pontoon site for about five minutes, trying to blow down any loose tree branches.

It was almost 90 minutes before the chopper returned. It had landed in the eastern parking lot on Goat Island for a  meeting with the ground crew.

“The key part of this mission is safely,” Fritz explained. “Obviously, this is just a piece of metal. We don’t want to put anybody at risk.”

But it was a piece of metal that potentially could have broken free and gone over the falls, where it might have struck the entrance to the Cave of the Winds, a popular tourist attraction.

Three members of the State Park Police — Officers Scott Durham and Nathan Sibinek, and Sgt. Jeffrey Eckert — began wading across the river about 3:50 p.m., following a safety line that had been strung Tuesday between an unnamed island above the Bridal Veil Falls and Bird Island.

Eight other members of the New York State Park Police Swiftwater Rescue Team and four state parks workers took up positions on both islands, where they tended to the ropes or readied themselves in case someone fell into the river and needed a rapid rescue.

The ropes were positioned low enough that an officer headed for the falls could have grabbed one of them.

Wednesday, the three-man team connected cables made of fiberglass and nylon, dropped from the helicopter, to two existing handles on the pontoon, which is 30 feet long and about 30 inches in diameter.

The two cables, each nearly 100 feet long, are strong enough to hold 25,000 pounds, Fritz said.

They were stretched to their full length as the helicopter hovered for a minute or so with the pontoon hanging horizontally below it, before the Chinook circled toward the falls and then turned back to the parking lot.

The ground crew  wound up the ropes before returning from the nameless island to Luna Island, which separates the Bridal Veil and American Falls.

Power Authority spokesman Lou Paonessa said the ice boom contains 256 pontoons, but the wayward pontoon recovered Wednesday won’t be installed in the boom for next winter.

“It’ll be a spare,” Paonessa said. “We routinely repair the ice boom every winter.”

Paonessa said the Power Authority and its Ontario counterparts maximized the amount of water diverted through their hydroelectric conduits Wednesday afternoon to reduce the depth of the water and make the removal operation easier.

Wednesday’s helicopter mission was a lot less hair-raising than one not far away 11 years ago.

On June 11, 2011, a Chinook from the same Army National Guard company removed a four-ton State Park Police boat that had run aground above Niagara Falls.

A Canadian helicopter had rescued the crew the day before.

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