Niagara Falls Daredevils Week-Day 5 (VIDEO)
A week of Niagara Falls daredevils wraps up with perhaps the most scientific stunter ever to conquer Niagara. As we shall see, though, even the most carefully planned stunt can have unplanned complications.
Karel Soucek was born in the former Czechoslovakia in 1947. He eventually settled in Hamilton, ON, making his living as a professional stuntman. In 1976, his attempt to ride a moped acoss the cables of the Spanish Aero Cars tourist ride failed when he hit a bolt shortly after beginning his trip. He was saved from falling into the Whirlpool Rapids by a safety harness. His next stunt, in 1977, saw him ride a steel barrell through the Whirlpool Rapids [a regularly-attempted feat over the years]. Soucek was caught in the Whirlpool for three hours before being rescued. Like most stunters, he ended up paying a fine for violating the strict anti-stunting law at Niagara. Still, he made the trip again later that year. But these were only the first efforts of a man who intended to conquer Niagara.
Soucek used the next few years experimenting with different types of barrel, sending them empty over the Falls, and checking for type and severity of damage. When it came time to build his Falls challenger, he used lightweight yet sturdy metals, coated with plastic. The barrel was weighed down enough at one end to control how it entered the waters at the base of Niagara, and even contained a two-way radio to communicate with his assistants!
On July 2nd of 1984, Souchek's barrel was released near the brink of the Falls. It bore his name, and the words "Last of the Niagara Daredevils". The craft moved at 75 miles per hour to the brink of the Falls then, as designed, fell one end first to the base of the cataract (Soucek later compared the feeling to a free-fall parachute jump). He spent the next 45 minutes bouncing off the rocks at the base of the Falls, but Soucek had plenty of oxygen on board, and just waited for the barrel to bounce free. After it did, it took just minutes to rescue him. He suffered only minor injuries. Here's a Toronto TV news report on the stunt:
[ImaxNiagara, via YouTube]
Soucek's stunt cost him about $15,000. He recovered that sum and more in interview and personal appearance fees. But he had larger plans in mind. Since he was the last of the daredevils, or seemed to expect to be, he planned on opening a museum in Niagara Falls, displaying his barrel, along with other memoribilia from the stunt. But he needed more money than he had to do so. He made a deal with an investor to recreate the stunt indoors, at the Houston Astrodome. The re-creation was set for the following January.
Karel Soucek was a popular person within the stuntman community, and several of his friends thought the Astrodome stunt was poorly planned (No less a colleague than Evel Knievel was said to have tried to talk him out of it). But Soucek was insistant.
On January 19TH, 1985, Soucek and his barrel were lifted 180 feet above the floor of the Astrodome. Then something went horribly wrong. One of the chains was released prematurely. The barrel spun crazily before falling. Instead of the water, it hit the rim of the water tank. It crashed to the Astrodome floor. Soucek was gravely injured, and died the next morning.
Is Niagara cursed? It's a matter of opinion, but there seems to be a large number of tragic or unusual deaths connected with those who attempted stunts there. One worries for the safety of Nik Wallenda, and wishes him all the best in his Niagara Falls challenge.