NEW YORK » On a concrete ledge off the upper deck of the George Washington Bridge, more than 200 feet above the swift and leaden Hudson River that November night, the two detectives gingerly approached the despondent man as he contemplated jumping.
The plunge, at a speed of more than 60 mph, would surely kill him.
Detectives Marc Nell and Everald Taylor, tethered to the bridge and to their rescue truck with nylon harnesses and heavy rope, knew to resist the urge to pull the man to safety. It was not time yet.
"Tell me your name," Nell said, tapping into the emotional and psychological arsenal that he had acquired in training. "Talk to me." "Think of your family."
Sometimes the detectives do most or all of the talking. It does not always matter. What the detectives are probing for is not necessarily conveyed in words. They are looking for an opening. A moment of doubt.
"Once you see that light, you see their facial expression change, their body posture change, and you think: ‘Oh, I got them. OK, they are not going anywhere,"’ Nell said. "It’s like when a boxer gets that shot and he knows that the opponent is wobbly and he just keeps going at that same spot."
In this case, Nell and Detective Eddie Torres, a third officer who had joined the rescue, did what they refer to as the Grab. They seized the man, pulling him off the ledge and over a guardrail.
Each year, the Police Department receives hundreds of 911 calls for so-called jumper jobs, or reports of people on bridges and rooftops threatening to jump. So far this year, that number is on track to surpass last year’s total, 519.
The department’s Emergency Service Unit responds to those calls. The roughly 300 officers in the unit are specially trained in suicide rescue, the delicate art of saving people from themselves; they know just what to say and, perhaps more important, what not to say.
"You wouldn’t want to say, ‘Yeah, things are bad and who knows if they can even get better,"’ Inspector Robert Lukach, the unit’s executive, said. "You always have to be positive. I like to tell my guys: Bring yourself into it. If he says, ‘Oh, I’m having problems with my wife,’ say: ‘Yeah, I have problems with my wife, too. My wife just yelled at me yesterday for not doing the dishes."’
The officer’s goal is to form a rapport with the person and seize upon the one emotional chord that will get him or her to climb down from the edge.
"You have to understand and extend yourself because your obvious goal is to save someone’s life," Lukach said. "So if you have to give a little, you give a little. That’s the sacrifice you make." The mental gymnastics can go on for hours, and do not always pay off.
On a cold day this past winter, Taylor was talking to a psychiatric patient who had squeezed through a sixth-floor bathroom window at Bellevue Hospital Center. The man’s toes barely fit on a building lip below, so he mostly clung to the window ledge by his fingers. He told the detective that he had killed somebody a few years back and could no longer live with the guilt.
"OK, we all make mistakes," Taylor said he told him. "That doesn’t mean you should take your life. We’re all human beings. None of us are perfect."
"Why don’t you just push me? Why don’t you just end it for me?" the man goaded the detective, who recounted his words.
"That’s not my purpose for being here," Taylor gently told him.
For nearly three hours, Taylor leaned out a seventh-floor window, talking, buying time, as other officers cut away window glass to create an opening large enough to make a grab. Taylor sensed the man was ready to come in. He was shirtless and cold; his muscles quivered. He asked for a blanket, the detective recalled.
"Fatigue set in," he said. "He was extending his arms to me, but I couldn’t reach him. At that point, he panicked a little bit, and that’s when he kind of groaned and said, ‘OK,’ and he left — fell."
Taylor, who has worked in emergency services for 12 years, spoke in a low voice, pausing pensively between words.
"That was my first failure," he said. "That was the one and only time that I lost someone I was talking to."
On a recent afternoon, the pathways on the Brooklyn Bridge buzzed with tourists and bicyclists enjoying a golden early fall day. Traffic hummed along. Then two words — broadcast over police radios across the city — brought the flow to a halt: jumper up.
A young man had climbed out on the bridge’s outer beam. From his perspective, midway along the south side, the man saw his life at a low point. As they always do in the midst of a rescue, the police stopped traffic in both directions and shut down pedestrian and bicycle pathways.
Many of the people and drivers on the bridge below resented the interruption.
"Come on! Jump already," yelled a bicyclist stuck at the foot of the bridge in Lower Manhattan.
He let loose a string of expletives. A rumor spread among the crowd that the man was up there eating a sandwich.
"He just wanted a nice perch to eat his lunch like some crazy guy," a pedestrian said.
Drivers threw up their hands and tap-tapped their car horns. Taxi passengers, dressed in business attire, took out their cellphones; they would be late.
On building rescues, the reactions of onlookers are as varied as the city’s neighborhoods. In Midtown Manhattan or the financial district, for instance, pedestrians are more likely to yell, "Jump!"; in residential areas, like Harlem or Brooklyn, where the would-be jumper might be a familiar face, residents will provide officers with information about the person. They will cheer and applaud officers who make a successful grab, Taylor said.
On this day, Detective Peter Keszthelyi, a member of the unit for 12 years, needed to focus. He stood on a catwalk that stretched across the bridge’s car lanes and carefully made his way over to the man.
"Traffic was horrible," Keszthelyi recalled. "Everybody was yelling at me. New York is ‘Hurry up and move or get out of my way."’
The 40-year-old detective tuned out the angry din and zeroed in on the man before him.
"I’m not here to hurt you in any way," he offered gently.
The detective asked the man’s story, what brought him out here, and a dialogue began. The man, in his early 20s, explained that he had no job and no place to live, Keszthelyi said.
"You might seem like you are alone, but you are not really alone," he told him.
Lots of people lose jobs — and find others they like better, he said.
"You just have to find something in life that you enjoy doing, and when you find that special thing in life, you are going to be successful at it," Keszthelyi assured him.
The man wanted to know what would happen if he came down. The officers know to be truthful.
"In my experience, you don’t want to lie to somebody like that," Keszthelyi said.
The detective told him that he would be escorted into an ambulance and taken to a hospital, where he would be evaluated and assigned a social worker and therapist. The man thought it over and then said: "I want to give it another chance. I want to come down."
Keszthelyi and other officers secured the man to their safety lines and walked him off the beam and down the ladder.
"He was honestly one of the nicest kids," the detective said in a telephone interview two hours after the rescue. "He was just in a bad place, and it didn’t seem like he had anybody to turn to. I felt really bad for him."
The Emergency Service Unit is among the most coveted assignments in the Police Department. Officers must have five years of patrol experience before they are eligible for the unit. They must pass an oral interview, a physical agility test and a swim test. Officers who are selected then go through at least six months of training. Rescuing would-be jumpers is only part of their portfolio: They also learn how to properly suppress a fire, extricate an accident victim from a crushed car, rescue people in swift waters and anchor and tie ropes for bridge and building rescues.
There are several specialized teams within the unit. The Apprehension Tactical Team, for instance, brings in violent felony suspects; the detective involved in the shooting of an unarmed man Thursday on the Grand Central Parkway was assigned to that duty and was part of a team that had just executed a warrant in the Bronx. Unit officers also take a three-week course to become certified emergency medical technicians and a week-long emergency psychological course. The opportunity to help people, affording them a second chance, feels like a privilege, said Detective Dennis Canale, of Emergency Truck 5 on Staten Island.
Canale’s squad supervisor, Sgt. Anthony Lisi, said he repeatedly stressed to his officers that if a person jumped, it was not their fault.
"That’s not necessarily a failure on our part," Lisi said. "That was their stronger will to want to hurt themselves. You don’t want to take that home with you, that you were the cause of someone’s demise, which you were not."
On jobs that last for hours, officers try to rotate talking to the person.
"If you have the ability to switch off, it’s good to do because your brain can wear on you," said Nell, who worked in emergency service from 2001 to 2010. "Your brain can get tired, and it could be cold, raining. It could be hot. I had a guy who just didn’t say anything to us. He’s just sitting there. We would constantly ask him questions over and over. We had an officer speaking Spanish just in case there was a language barrier. He wouldn’t say a word. You waited and you just kept talking and talking and pleading with the guy. It went on for hours."
"Finally, he was distracted," the detective added, "and one of the guys just grabbed him, but he never said a word to us the whole time."
There have been times, however, when an officer has established a rapport with someone who then refused to talk to anyone else. In that case, the officer must continue talking, or stay "online," as the officers call it.
"It’s just you and that person for as long as it takes," Nell said.
Some people will ask officers to bring a loved one to the scene. Officers are trained to redirect the conversation, offering, "We’ll see what we can do."
"Sometimes when someone asks for a specific person to be brought there, especially a person they are upset at, they are looking to do the act in front of them, so you don’t want to take that chance," Nell said.
Lisi’s squad responds to emergency calls on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which connects Staten Island and Brooklyn. The walkways up the bridge’s main cables are so steep that officers in the squad said they often have to stop to catch their breath while scaling them. It is nearly 230 feet from the water to the bridge’s upper deck, and almost 700 feet to the top of the towers. The chances of surviving a leap from the Verrazano are minuscule. It is unlike the more forgiving and much lower Brooklyn Bridge, and emergency service officers were hard-pressed to recall anyone who had survived the Verrazano, at least in recent years.
A dramatic rescue unfolded on the Verrazano in July, when officers talked down a man from an outer ledge, mid-span, who told officers he was distraught over arguments with his teenage daughter. The officers determined that he spoke Cantonese and brought in an officer from the Fifth Precinct, Yi Huang, to help interpret.
During four hours of negotiations, Canale shared his own hardships with the man, divulging his anguish and despair when his son was found to have brain cancer. The boy, now 6, beat back the disease.
"I explained to him that my son was sick, gravely sick," Canale said. "I told him everybody goes through issues. You can’t give up in this world. You have to fight on."
Canale said the man hugged him and shook Officer Ralph Stallone’s hand just before leaving in an ambulance. At the top of each bridge he climbs, Stallone leaves a purple rubber wristband in memory of a 15-month-old nephew who died of a genetic disorder in 2010.
Nell said he sometimes wondered what happened to those he had helped: Did they get their lives together? Did they try to kill themselves again?
He recalled a Bronx man who plunged off an apartment balcony on the 32nd floor of a Co-op City building in December 2005. The man’s foot got caught in the railing of a balcony on the 31st floor and he was dangling by his ankle. Nell, along with other emergency workers, grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him up. The detective remembered how a female paramedic touched the man’s shoulder and said, "It wasn’t your time."
There are those who, even after having been rescued, do not seem grateful.
"Maybe they will down the road," said Detective Darren McNamara, who recently dived into the Hudson River and swam out to a suicidal woman. As he grabbed her, according to the detective, she looked at him flatly and said, "Why did you do that?"
And while potential jumpers often wait for officers to arrive because they may want to be talked out of killing themselves, there are those who never give officers the chance. Canale recalled a man who leapt from a lower stretch of the Verrazano and struck the rocks below. The man was still alive when the detective got to him, though many of his bones were broken, his internal organs ruptured.
As the man’s shattered body was secured to a long board and he was administered oxygen, the man, in some of his final words, said he regretted jumping, the detective recalled.
"I can’t get this right, either," the man said, according to Canale. "I told him: ‘We’re going to get you to the hospital. We’re going to try to make it better."’