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Suicide-talk reporter faces drama at bridge railing

Trudging over the Burnside Bridge with my wife and kids toward the Pride Parade on Sunday, I saw someone who made me remember the suicide prevention conference I’d recently covered in Forest Grove (“Officials Say Zero Suicides an Attainable Goal,” News-Times, May 20, 2015).

A heavily inked, gender-ambiguous person (I’ll say “she”) was stopping and starting and walking to and fro with an odd but purposeful aimlessness. I wondered whether her squirrely behavior was sparked by the Pride Parade just ahead. Perhaps she was still struggling in a way the clean-cut, “mainstream” gay folks who parade in their matching insurance company T-shirts no longer do.

And I remembered the suicide-conference speaker reporting that of the very few survivors who’d leapt off the Golden Gate Bridge, every 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 rapidly receding walkway above.

One survivor, as I recalled, said he wouldn’t have jumped if even one person had inquired about his welfare as he paced in obvious extremis.

So I doubled back and approached the young woman as placidly as I could and asked if she was all right. She said she was OK and reassured me as we chatted a bit more, then headed back off the bridge.

Turns out that was just a warmup. As I trotted along across the span toward my family, I noticed about 10 people gathered loosely, phones in hand, near a man standing up on the railing. He was silent and big as life, facing the river, his head some 10 feet up over a very long way down.

I’d just caught up to my family, who hadn’t yet noticed the unfolding drama, so I told my wife to grab our sons by the hand and keep walking.

And I saw some well-meaning guy touching the potential jumper, gently patting his leg. That struck me as dangerous. From what I’d gleaned over the years, if you’re going to physically intervene, it better be incisive--not something ineffectual that just violates the person's autonomy, one of the few things they have left. That patting his leg drove me to act.

As I approached the man 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 guilt.

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 nodded to a young guy to the left of our target and made an encircling gesture with my arms. He nodded back. I closed the two steps and reached up, grabbed the potential jumper tight around the waist, locked my hands and hauled him down. 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.

“Man, I have just had it,” he said. And I said I knew what he meant.

I got his permission and checked for anything sharp in his pockets. Nothing.

I told him my name and had the guys on either side of us introduce themselves as well. Then I asked his name. Let’s call him Jedediah.

Feeling intrusive, I dropped my hands from his shoulders. And Jedediah immediately turned toward 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 could be expected, one man restraining another.

I was glad to see flashing lights approaching. Big, competent, caring, Portland Police Officer Grover Robinson Jr. took charge, soon joined by Sgt. James Crooker. Robinson gently rear-cuffed Jedediah and picked up his exceedingly neat, homeless person’s kit, which rested on a small wheeled cart. I patted Jedediah on the shoulder and said I hoped he wasn’t mad at me. He said no and thanked me for what I’d done.

The small crowd had melted away by then, 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 placed Jedediah in the back of his car, and I asked if he could open the window. We talked through the bars 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 give my side of our sudden, fraught involvement, 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, it sort of stays with you, that mindset.

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 phone number on a slip of paper, omitting my last name, then wondered how to get it in his pants pocket. 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 on tight.

I patted him on the shoulder again and said goodbye. Then I ran to catch up to my family at the far end of the bridge, watching the parade down below.

Daniel Forbes writes about Washington County for the News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune.


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