BUFFALO -- It all started when a 7-year-old girl slipped into the Niagara River off Squaw Island on Monday afternoon.
Her 17-year-old brother, identified today as Mustafa Ismail, jumped in after her and threw her to shore, into the waiting arms of two older sisters, witnesses said.
One of the sisters onshore -- a 13-year-old -- noticed her brother struggling in the water and jumped in after him.
Like her brother, she soon was overcome by the cold water and current.
At that moment, fisherman Leonard W. Stevens knew he needed to act as he saw the two siblings floating facedown about 20 feet from shore.
"I realized I had to save a life," Stevens said.
Stevens managed to pull the 13-year-old sister from the water as he clung to a piece of driftwood, fearing that the river's current might take his life. He tried for the brother, too, but the teenager, Stevens said, had disappeared into the brown water.
About 45 minutes later, a Buffalo police diver found the young man on the river's bottom not far from where he had submerged.
A short time after that, the teen was pronounced dead at Erie County Medical Center.
Stevens was described by police as a hero, but the dramatic rescue was tempered by the death of the 17-year-old, who gave his life while saving his little sister.
Weeping, Stevens said, "He's a hero in my book."
"I consider Stevens and the brother both heroes for their actions. It's unfortunate the brother lost his life, but he saved his sister," Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said late Monday.
Police said the family members are African immigrants, possibly from Somalia.
Stevens was at the river fishing Monday afternoon. He recalled seeing the sisters and brother kicking a ball around.
"There were three sisters and two brothers. Then I happened to see the little 7-year-old slip into the water and her older brother go in after her," Stevens said, recounting the tragedy he had watched unfold.