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 down into one of the world's largest waterfalls. On the second night, he went to a strip club.

Jones drove to Niagara Falls last October to change his life -- 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 any 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., native said, for what followed: He met his boyhood idol, rock legend Alice Cooper; he talked with ABC's Diane Sawyer, and he signed a $100,000 contract with a circus.

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

Earlier this month, Jones boarded a Greyhound bus to the New York side of the falls, searching for more promotional opportunities to turn his infamy into cash.

At the Falls Side Cafe & Souvenirs shop, where he had cut a deal with the owner, Louie Antonacci, 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.

Eight weeks before the jump, Jones -- never married, unemployed and full of regret -- drove to the Horseshoe Falls, on the Canadian side of the waterfalls, with his parents, Ray and Doris. 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 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 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.

Downstream, 600,000 gallons per second spilled over the horizon. Mist rose from the gorge. It was beautiful. And beckoning.

Jones flipped one leg over the railing. Then the other.

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?"

"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!"

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.

The water's roar muffled screams from the shore. Then Jones disappeared, catapulted into the curtain of the falls, flailing in a six-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. 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."

Reporters from around the world camped outside the psychiatric hospital. Jones's father told the press 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 cops. It didn't.

(c) 2004, Detroit Free Press

Kirk Jones on the American side of Niagara Falls.