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A hard landing after the falls

 
Published Aug. 30, 2004|Updated Aug. 28, 2005

On the first night he thought could be his last, Kirk Jones ate a burger and fries at Denny's and drove around Niagara Falls, Ontario, trying to persuade himself to take an unprotected plummet 167 feet into one of the world's largest waterfalls.

On the second night, he went to a strip club. If he didn't survive, he told himself, he'd at least die with a little smile on his face.

Jones drove to Niagara Falls last October to change his life, either by ending it or improving it.

An estimated 5,000 people have died going over the falls. No one had ever survived without a barrel or other protection. Jones did, and promptly was arrested.

He spent the next three days in a psychiatric ward, was released and immediately charged with performing a banned stunt and criminal mischief. He pleaded guilty, paid a fine _ $5,000 Canadian _ and agreed to banishment from the Canadian side of the falls for life.

It was a small penalty, the Canton, Mich., man said, for what followed: He met his boyhood idol, rock legend star Alice Cooper; he talked with ABC's Diane Sawyer and he signed a $100,000 contract to join a circus.

"I never imagined anyone would ever be interested in me," Jones said.

Three months later, the circus folded, and he moved to his parents' Oregon home. At 40, he imagined a memoir about his journey, a future of televised stunts and summers in Niagara Falls, signing autographs and posing for pictures with those willing to pay him.

Earlier this month after a brief stay with a friend in Canton, Jones boarded a Greyhound bus and rode all night to the New York side of the falls, searching for more promotional opportunities.

Twelve hours later, he arrived at the Falls Side Cafe & Souvenirs shop. His hair was freshly trimmed, and he wore black slacks and a shirt. He had cut a deal with the owner, Louie Antonacci, the only one of five souvenir shop owners to respond to letters he sent pitching a personal appearance.

The plan was to sit at a table at the store's entrance, a block from the falls, and tell his story.

Almost 10 months after his leap into notoriety, Jones still is trying to figure out whether his miracle will turn his life around.

"Do something spectacular'

Eight weeks before the jump, Jones _ unemployed, full of regret and never married _ drove to Horseshoe Falls, on the Canadian side of the waterfalls, with his parents, Ray and Doris, whom he had lived with in Canton for most of his adult life. Though he says now that he got the idea to test the falls as a boy, it wasn't until that trip with his parents that he began to seriously consider it.

His parents planned to retire to Oregon when they returned from Niagara Falls, so the journey had a melancholy feel for Jones. He had lost his job working at their gauge-manufacturing business when they sold the plant. Now, he was losing them.

Jones spent the time with his parents ruminating about what he hadn't done in his life, how he hadn't ventured much beyond their home.

"He always wanted to do something spectacular," Ray Jones said.

His son was affable and polite, and his father said he used those traits well as a salesman. But he had no other skill. He knew he would need luck to leave his mark on the world. As a child, he almost drowned in a lake. He thought the mystery of that survival foreshadowed something bigger.

Two months after that trip, Jones and an unemployed friend, Bob Krueger, drove to Niagara Falls. Jones had $300 that his parents had wired.

On Oct. 18, he checked into the Alpine Motel, ate the burger and fries and went to bed. His plan was to wake up and slip into the river.

When he awoke Sunday, he had doubts. He drove along the Horseshoe Falls, scouting. He drove to Ripley's Believe-It-Or-Not museum but didn't go in. That night, he settled into the adult club.

Monday morning, he got up at 6. He had a pint of vodka and a bottle of Coke. He downed three drinks. He wrote a note, urging his friends and family to move on with their lives, and left it in Krueger's car with $30, all that was left of the $300.

"I felt like the loneliest man in the world," he said.

Almost two hours later, Jones ambled over to a railing, which guarded an embankment that sloped to the rushing river.

He wore tennis shoes, jeans, a red shirt and a red jacket. Downstream, 600,000 gallons per second spilled over the horizon. Mist rose from the gorge.

It was beautiful.

And beckoning.

He thought about a conversation his fourth-grade teacher once had with his parents.

"Your son is intelligent and bright, but he never completes his assigned work," the teacher said.

Jones flipped one leg over the railing. Then another.

He was standing on the embankment.

He couldn't let go of the railing.

He was about to climb back to safety and forget the whole thing when he heard a woman's voice.

"You're not going to jump, are you?"

"Man in the water!'

The Niagara River is 12,000 years old. The gorge is much older, formed by glaciers during the end of the last ice age. For centuries, poets and scientists have tried to explain the hypnotic lure of the falls, which attract about 12-million tourists a year, including several dozen who come to die, authorities say, although 10 daredevils have survived.

Annie Taylor was the first, plunging over the currents in a wooden barrel in 1901. Taylor, from Bay City, Mich., was looking for fame and money. She died broke.

The woman near the railing was chuckling nervously. And when she asked Jones whether he planned to jump, it triggered something.

"I think I will," he said.

He was sucked into the 25-mph current. He rolled onto his back and pointed his feet toward the falls. He heard screams.

"There's a man in the water!"

He refused to look at the shore. He didn't want the panicked faces in his memory. He stared at the sky. And waited.

He had no past; he had no future. It was cold.

Hurtling toward the edge of the water wall, Jones couldn't tell how long he had. He knew the odds.

"If I become another statistic . . . so be it."

In a way, that's how he viewed himself anyway.

He began taking deep breaths, inflating his chest, desperate to cram oxygen into his lungs. He wanted to live.

The water's roar muffled screams from the shore. Then Jones disappeared, catapulted into the curtain of the falls, flailing in a 6-foot wall of white liquid.

He kept his eyes open, even as he corkscrewed, even as the pressure felt like it would rip his arms off, and for a moment, everything appeared beautifully distorted, as though he were looking through a diamond prism.

He was in the air for four, maybe five seconds, before plunging feet first into the collection pool, which felt like hitting a granite table. The weight of the falling water pushed him 30 to 40 feet under and spun him like a top. He was trapped, tumbling like shoes in a dryer, searching for a way up. A minute later, he shot up like a cork.

"It felt like a team of people were beating me with baseball bats," he said.

On the surface, away from the falls, he coughed out water and searched through the mist for the shore. He heard more screams from tourists on the nearby Maid of the Mist boat. Finally, he saw rocks. His arms like rubber, he pulled himself from the roiling, frigid river, steadied himself on the rocks, raised his arms and shot an incredulous, devilish smile for the cameras and tourists gaping from above. Within minutes, Canadian police officers greeted him.

"Are you all right?"

"Yes."

"I guess you're in the record books. You're also under arrest."

"Everyone wanted to meet him'

Reporters from around the world camped outside the psychiatric hospital. Jones' father told the media his son's leap into the falls was a lifelong dream. His brother and mother said he had been depressed. Jones played up the mental instability, thinking it would help his case with the police. It didn't.

A few days later, a circus promoter with Toby Tyler found him in Oregon, with his parents, where he was struggling with his evaporating fame.

Phil Dolci, the promoter, offered him $100,000 to hit the road and tell his story. The job was to regale customers with tales of nature's power, pose for photos, sign autographs and lead the llamas during the opening parade, all while dressed in a white suit dotted with gold sequins and rhinestones. During downtime, he had to groom elephants, break down tents and sleep in the back of a semitrailer.

"Everyone wanted to meet him," said Dolci. "He was a natural."

When the circus came to a town, Jones would sit with local reporters. He practiced telling his story, reducing it to a few catchy platitudes about overcoming fears, grabbing life and touching the hand of God. He got lost in his own cliches.

"The animals were great," he said. "But I didn't enjoy the gypsy life."

Jones was relieved when the circus ran out of money. He returned to Oregon in early April. His father, 81, suffered a stroke a month later, and the prodigal son, who'd lived most of his life off his parents' generosity, took a few months to help them.

He bathed and fed his father and talked about the book he wanted to write.

He told his father he had another stunt in mind: a world-record jump off a building onto a pile of air cushions.

"He will do what he sets out to do, right or wrong," said his father.

"Meet Kirk Jones'

In the early days after the jump, Jones felt cleansed.

"I think I left a lot of my problems on the bottom of the gorge that day," he said.

But when he arrived at Falls Side Cafe and Souvenirs shop this month, he was less certain. Jones spent a weekend sitting at a table covered with newspaper articles and a copy of his ticket and court summons. There were brochures printed with sweeping overhead shots of the falls _ Jones would mark the spot he hit the edge with a black pen.

Behind him, a video monitor played old newscasts, woven together with documentary footage of the falls. There was material explaining the theory of how he survived. Above it all, a sign read: "Meet Kirk Jones."

Tourists seemed surprised to see him.

"You're that guy?"

Jones would fall back into his story, eyes lit, laughing at its most incredulous moments, offering his soul for anyone willing to listen.

He knows they won't listen forever.