Fantastical as it sounds, my intervention wasn’t my first encounter with someone potentially suicidal that particular trek across Portland’s Burnside Bridge, as my family and I headed for Sunday’s Pride Parade. I’d already doubled back to speak with someone acting squirrelly right where the bridge crosses over I-5’s many lanes of traffic. She — she seemed the sartorial choice — was stopping and starting and walking to and fro, rather than crossing the bridge, all with an odd, purposeful aimlessness.
And I remembered the suicide prevention conference I’d recently attended. Remembered something one speaker had made a particular point of: that of the very, very few survivors of a leap off the Golden Gate Bridge, every single one of them as they fell was gripped by profound regret. Gripped by what a terrible mistake they’d just made, and that they’d give anything to be back on that walkway rapidly receding above.
A survivor named Kevin Hines, as I recalled, has said he wouldn’t have jumped if even one person had inquired of his welfare as he paced crying and in extremis. When someone did finally stop, only to ask that he take her photo, that’s what sent him over the railing.
So I approached the heavily inked young woman as placidly as I could, and more or less asked if she was alright. And — alarming in and of itself — she immediately grasped the import of my question. But she said she was OK. So I danced around another couple of increasingly vague iterations of the question. And was politely told that she was fine. And then she turned and headed back off the bridge.
And what was I to do but wonder what the hell to do? People are allowed to be purposefully aimless on a hot Sunday morning, even — especially? — folks with a certain gender fluidity on a day when so many clean-cut, ‘mainstream’ gay folks parade in their matching insurance company tee shirts and the like.
So I trotted along across half the span to catch up to my family and looked up and saw some eight or ten people gathered loosely around, taking in the view, no doubt. And then I saw the man standing, silent and big as life, up on the railing where no one should be. And the sight was too weird — too wrong — to really register, his head some ten feet up over a very long way down.
I sort of skipped over the enormity of him standing up there facing the Willamette River and focused instead on something right at eye level. Something that struck me as wrong.
And just then I caught up to the family, who were chatting amongst themselves and hadn’t seen. And I told my wife to grab each boy by the hand and keep walking.
And that bad thing kept happening, some well-meaning guy touching the potential jumper right below the knee, sort of a gentle, intermittent pat, pat, pat.
And that seemed wrong, however well intentioned. From what I’d gleaned over the years, whether from journalism or the movies, I seemed to recall if you’re going to physically intervene, it better be incisive. Seemed to recall that the one thing a jumper has is autonomy: don’t come any closer or I’ll…. Best not to threaten that autonomy ineffectually, I sort of remembered.
I was within five feet of the motionless, silent man on the ledge staring out over the water. For all I knew, his thoughts rested elsewhere, not on the folks standing there with their phones out.
I thought briefly of liability — criminal liability — if I botched the job. And I realized I hadn’t a clue about that. Then I thought of another sort of liability, that of recrimination and maybe, who knows, vodka on your cornflakes. Not the sort that’s adjudicated, except when you wake up and know sleep is done though dawn’s a long way off.
And the guy kept patting him on the leg.
I nodded to another guy to the left of our target, a competent looking man in his twenties, and made an encircling gesture with my arms. He nodded back. No shilly-shallying, no granting the troubled soul above us the chance to look over his shoulder.
The decision made, could I do it without, as they say in sports, choking? Could I hit that crucial free throw? Or would I clutch at him poorly and send someone maybe making an entirely empty gesture plummeting off the railing?
I closed the two steps and reached up and grabbed him tight around the waist, and locked my hands and hauled him down — gently enough, I suppose, but not messing around. The guy on my left had a good grip on his arm.
It was easy. We caught him by surprise, and he didn’t weigh much more than 150 pounds.
I kept my hands on his shoulders and found myself looking at a handsome, dark-skinned man somewhere in his sixties with a trim white goatee and a purple baseball cap. And not protesting really, but just sort of stating a fact by way of explanation, he said, “Man, I have just had it.”
And I said I knew what he meant. But this still wasn’t the right route.
This man soon passing from my hands, however, it wasn’t my role to get all involved in his troubles, his psyche, his path to that bridge. The cops soon to arrive; I hadn’t earned that right. So instead, I added something truly inane.
No, not how can you check out if the possibility of love still exists for you — because maybe for him such was forestalled. Rather, I reached for the truly banal and advocated life “in a world where there’s chocolate cake to eat.”
Fumbling talk badly, I figured there was no point in one of us maybe getting hurt. So I asked if he had anything sharp in his pockets, and he said no. I got his permission to check — and nothing.
After that intrusion, I felt bad about my hands on his shoulders, so I dropped them. And he immediately turned towards the water, not in a mad dash, but with conviction. So I locked my hands on his biceps and there we remained as amiably as two men can, one restraining the other.
Let’s call him Jedediah, since his real name has a similar, time-tested grandeur. He said again that he had “just about had it.” And I hope I said something less dumb than before. And I looked off down the expanse of Burnside Bridge and was glad to see flashing lights.
And then big, competent, caring, Portland Police Bureau Officer Grover Robinson Jr. took charge, soon joined by Sgt. James Crooker. And Robinson gently got Jedediah rear-cuffed, and I asked if that was necessary. Told that it was, I guess that’s right.
And the cops got my name and number and asked me to stick around to make a statement as everyone else melted away, drawn by the sound of a marching band at the Pride Parade and maybe a hint of self-consciousness at witnessing a stranger’s brush with death.
Robinson went to get Jedediah’s exceedingly neat, homeless-person’s kit resting on a small wheeled cart. I patted Jedediah on the shoulder and said I hoped he wasn’t mad at me. And he said no and thanked me for what I’d done.
Robinson placed him in the back of his car, and I asked if he could open the window, so Jedediah could get some air on a hot day (and I could say goodbye).
We talked through the bars covering the window, and I told him that where he was headed wasn’t the nicest place in the world, but that hopefully he’d meet some caring doctors, and that it was for the best.
He said he knew that. That he’d been on a psych ward before. That he was a veteran with PTSD. And I guess he meant Vietnam, but I didn’t ask.
Instead, feeling I should reciprocate his explanation with mine for our sudden, fraught connection, I told him of my summer job during college. That I was a lifeguard at some dumb pool, and that once you’re trained to intervene, that mindset sort of lingers. That I was sorry never to try out for a real (i.e., ocean) lifeguard’s job because of poor eyesight. I held my glasses before him to confirm my blind-as-a-bat status.
I was babbling really, trying to take Jedediah’s mind off his troubles — and mine off what had just occurred.
Then I asked if he wanted to call me if he felt the need sometime. And he said that he might. So I wrote my name on a slip of paper along with my one, landline number. And then I thought of my kids.
I asked again if he was mad at me, and he said no and thanked me again.
Him in a tee shirt, I wondered how to get the slip of paper in his pants pocket. Or should I just give it to Officer Robinson to give to him later? But cops typically frown on crossing such boundaries.
And Jedediah said to put it under his hat. So I reached through the bars and placed it on his bald head and got his hat back tight and patted him on the shoulder for the fifth time and said goodbye.
I gave my statement to a third cop and described the person who’d been acting so odd at the start of my bridge-crossing a long ten or twelve minutes before. She thanked me for grabbing Jedediah and said that cops weren’t allowed to just go grab someone off a railing.
Days later, I consulted some experts — something denied an actor in the moment — as to whether there’s any standard protocol, any agreed upon best practice, for intervening with a man on a ledge. Three recognized experts said there’s a firm rule not to endanger oneself. Jedediah high above me, myself with my feet on the walkway and a near-four-foot barrier between me and the river, I was in no danger.
That hurdle cleared, the three — Dr. Dan Reidenberg, the Executive Director of SAVE and Managing Director of the National Council for Suicide Prevention; Dr. Brian Mishara, Professor of Psychology at University of Quebec at Montreal and past president of the International Association for Suicide Prevention; and Dr. Lisa Firestone, Director of Research and Education at the Glendon Association — agreed that there’s no set rules.
Mishara said there are no published guidelines for how an ordinary Joe — “someone random” rather than a cop or paramedic — should intervene. But, he added, “The basic rule is don’t do anything abrupt to panic the person.”
Told that Jedediah was resolutely facing the water, Mishara said, “If you can pull someone to safety and you’re confident you’re not endangering yourself, it certainly is acceptable.” It’s pretty unusual that a potential jumper is unaware of a rescuer’s presence, he noted.
Referring to both the man patting Jedediah’s leg and to my action, Reidenberg said, “There is no standard protocol, no best practice.” He stressed that you don’t have to be in medicine or law enforcement. “We don’t want people to walk away or not get involved. The real story here is someone with no training or education stepped up and did something to save a life.”
Asked about the intrusion of touching Jedediah’s leg, Firestone said, “It might prove a trigger to send him over the edge.”
A strong advocate for a proactive approach, Reidenberg disagreed. “There is no right or wrong,” he said, adding that the person patting Jedediah may have had some plan that could have turned out well or ill.
Mishara said, “You usually ask permission before touching someone…. I’ve never seen or heard of anyone touching someone’s leg” rather than grabbing a hand.
That Sunday, I ran to catch up to my family at the far end of the bridge watching the parade down below. I asked my wife if they’d seen what happened, and she said, no, she hadn’t wanted our young kids to see and had hurried off.
She was right, of course. But there was a sliver of regret at the absence of my two boys, starting to flirt with disappointment in their old duff of a dad.
They asked what it was all about, why I had sent them and their mother scurrying off. So I told them since, lacking the steel-trap memory for it, I try not to lie to them.
The one kept asking why the man had maybe wanted to kill himself. All I could say was I didn’t know, that it wasn’t my place to ask. But that he had thanked me twice for hauling him off that railing. For preventing those few seconds of profound regret as he fell.
Reidenberg said, “Most people are afraid to act, they don’t trust themselves.” He urged: “Very few people have the opportunity, fewer take it. Trust your instinct, whatever it is.”
Crossposted with Huffington Post
Daniel Forbes is the author of Derail this Train Wreck, from Fomite Press. Find correct, second edition here. A shorter version of this article first appeared in The Portland Tribune.
Note: The Samaritans Helpline and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are safe, private and available 24 hours a day.