NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — Fifty years ago, Roger Woodward earned bragging rights as one of the few people to survive a plunge over Niagara Falls.
Not that he ever used them.
For sure, the 7-year-old miracle boy who tumbled over the brink after a boating accident is part of the colorful folklore of the Falls. His story is told in the same breath as the fame and fortune-seeking adventurers led by schoolteacher Annie Taylor's 1901 barrel ride with her cat.
But if one thing is clear in the last 50 years, it's that Woodward is nothing like Taylor or the Karel Souceks, Steve Trotters and John Mundays who've followed, fashioning contraptions from pickle barrels and inner tubes to earn daredevil stripes.
On the 50th anniversary of his 162-foot drop, Woodward still wants no part of that club.
"Our story has absolutely nothing to do with anything heroic or of a daredevil-type nature," he said during an interview from Hampton Cove, Ala., where, at age 57, he's a semiretired real estate agent. "Those guys are in a world of their own. I frankly don't understand it."
Woodward and his family sought to resume normal life after he and his 17-year-old sister, Deanne Woodward, were rescued from the Niagara River after being tossed from family friend James Honeycutt's 12-foot aluminum boat on July 9, 1960.
New Jersey tourists John Hayes and John Quattrochi pulled Deanne Woodward to shore just before the brink. Honeycutt was swept with Roger Woodward over the Horseshoe Falls and died.
"We were just two kids out with a family friend for a day on the water," Woodward says. "It turned tragic. A man lost his life, and quite literally by the grace of God we were thankful that my sister and I were saved."
For 34 years, Woodward and his sister never talked about it, not even to each other. Their parents thought it best they move on. But Woodward remembers the immediate interest from the outside world was overwhelming, so much so that his father hooked the family's trailer to a truck and moved in the dead of night from Niagara Falls.
These days, Woodward will good-naturedly retell the story.
Reporters call on anniversaries or when Niagara Falls is in the headlines, like in 2003 when a Michigan auto parts salesman survived an attempted suicide and in March 2009 when a suicidal Canadian man survived. Until them, Woodward was the only person known to have survived an unprotected plunge.
He marked the 50th anniversary by listening with his wife, Susan Woodward, to a rebroadcast of a radio special about the accident.
"To this day, every time I hear the story I can smell the water," he said.
For Woodward, the worst part was the brutal ride through suffocating whitewater where he was tossed from Honeycutt's boat after it struck something, became disabled and was pulled into the powerful rapids.
"This water looks like it's as big as a house with the waves and the rocks," he says. "One minute you're pulled underwater, you can't breathe, you wonder if you're ever going to breathe again. The next second you're thrown up into the air and you come down and you're glancing off of rocks as you're going through the rapids."
He says there was a peaceful moment, though — while he was going over the brink of the Falls.
"I was floating in a cloud," he says. "I had no sensation of up or down. I didn't have any sensation in my stomach like you might have on a roller coaster ... that moment when your stomach is in your throat."
He doesn't remember hitting bottom. He may have been protected from the rocks by what's known as a water cone, a formation that bursts from the surface after water and air drop with such force, Niagara Falls historian Paul Gromosiak said.
"It's like a hand reaching out," Gromosiak explained. "It had to be that — or a miracle."
"Miracle" was what the newspaper headlines declared over black-and-white photos of the blond, blue-eyed boy clinging to a life ring before being pulled onto the Maid of the Mist tour boat, which was nearby when he bobbed to the surface at the churning base. He looks as though he's smiling — but he was in shock.
"I'm scared absolutely to death," he says.
Another photo shows him in his hospital bed, recovering from a slight concussion, scrapes and bruises. Later photos show him, hair gelled neatly to the side, posing with Captain Clifford Keech, who maneuvered the tour boat so the crew could toss a lifeline.
All these years later, it's difficult to say how that moment may have affected the life of the carpenter's son who loved the outdoors.
It was his first boat ride and could have been his last. Instead, Woodward developed a love of boating, became a certified diver, even joined the Navy during the Vietnam War. But you won't find him on the upper Niagara with a 7.5-horsepower motor like the one that powered Honeycutt's boat.
"I'm a person of common sense and very safety minded," he said.
Woodward is drawn to stories of survival on the high seas, accounts of circumnavigating the globe, with their underlying themes about persevering through the worst nature has to offer.
"I like the part of survival, the way they find a way to survive in dire circumstances," he said.
Woodward said he heard countless times that "God had his hand on you that day" or "God must have some important mission for you to accomplish in life." But it wasn't until 20 years later that the boy who had not regularly attended church was encouraged by a friend to go after finding himself troubled by nagging "why am I here?" questions.Comment on this story
"From that day forward I was able to answer that one huge question," he said, "and the answer to the question was this: God saved me that day, July 9, 1960, because he knew at age 27 that I would come to know him as my savior."
It led him to the ministry for two years, but he spent most of his working life in the corporate world, in the office products and telecommunications industries.
And while he kept a low profile as a Niagara Falls survivor, his three sons while growing up were quicker to exploit the story.
"I was a pretty good show-and-tell piece in school," he says.