San Francisco: As he shivered on a narrow iron bar 220 feet above San Francisco Bay, 22-year-old Kevin Berthia heard a voice. It did not belong to the old wounds, crushing worries and inner demons that had driven him to the Golden Gate Bridge.
This voice, calm and kind, patient and reassuring, belonged to California Highway Patrol Officer Kevin Briggs. And it was all that stood between Berthia and all-but-certain death. For more than an hour, Briggs kept talking as the younger man poured out his troubles.
“I know you think things are bad, but they can get better,” Briggs said.
Berthia decided to believe him and eight years later credits him with saving his life.
On Wednesday, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is recognising the CHP with a public service award in suicide prevention in New York. The honour will be accepted by Briggs, who colleagues say has a gift for connecting with those thinking of killing themselves.
They say he has had only one of them jump during his 23-year career.
“They make the decision,” Briggs, who was promoted to sergeant five years ago and now trains other officers on how to work with suicidal people, said of those he’s influenced. “This is a huge decision, and when they come back, it starts a whole new life for them. I believe they are so stressed and so ready to go that when they step back over that rail, it takes a tremendous amount of courage.”
The occasion will reunite him with Berthia, who is presenting the award. The two men last saw each other at San Francisco General Hospital, where Berthia was brought for treatment following his March 11, 2005, suicide attempt.
“He never made me feel guilty for being in the situation I was in,” said Berthia, now 30 and a married father of two, recalled of the conversation with Briggs on the bridge. “He made me feel like, ‘I understand why you are here, but there are alternatives.’
“That an individual who doesn’t even know me could listen to me and hear my story and show me compassion gave me another reason maybe to try again,” Berthia said.
More than 1,500 people have killed themselves by jumping off the Golden Gate, making the bridge that opened in 1937 one of the world’s most-active suicide spots. A less-known statistic is the much larger number of people who have been talked out of taking their lives by the CHP, US Park Police and bridge security officers.
Last year, there were 33 confirmed and three unconfirmed suicides from the famous span. But the bridge district recorded 86 successful interventions. So it is not uncommon for veteran officers to have persuaded hundreds of people to accept offers of help.
Since the mid-1990s, when the bridge district was facing pressure to install a physical barrier to prevent jumpers from getting over the sides, the number of officers participating in anti-suicide patrols has increased along with the intensity and sophistication of their efforts.
Officers on bicycles, scooters and motorcycles - there are more of them assigned to the bridge after the 9/11 terrorist attacks - actively engage pedestrians who appear sad or out of place, ones who are lingering by the railing without a camera and looking down.
Golden Gate Bridge and Transportation District Captain Lisa Locati said the work of persuading people not to kill themselves is as much about instinct and desire and buying time as anything else. There is no script. Each officer has his or her own techniques.
And if what one officer is saying doesn’t seem to be working, another will step in.
CHP Officer Sandro Salvetti, who lost an older brother to suicide 22 years ago, usually starts with small talk, and then moves on to questions designed to ferret out someone’s mental state. If the answers are evasive or don’t add up, he asks if they are intending to hurt themselves.
“I’ve had people laugh at me, and they are like, ‘No, I was just waiting for this boat to come by’ or to see this flock of birds,” Salvetti said. “Others will look at me and start crying.”
More than once, he has told would-be jumpers how his brother’s death devastated him. Just last week, he shared the story with a middle-aged man who was having financial problems.
“I said, ‘You can’t do this, This is what happened to me.’ He sat there and absorbed it,” he said. “When I left him at the hospital, he stood up and shook my hand and thanked me. That’s the satisfaction.”