New York Feb 21 2017 With Manhattan's glistening skyline on one side and trees lining the Hudson River on the other, the George Washington Bridge is a pretty place to die.
Suicide attempts are all too common on the mile-long span, with nearly 100 people trying to jump from the bridge last year. It’s a grim reality for members of the Port Authority Police Department’s “Suicide Squad” — the men and women who patrol the bridge’s pedestrian walkways looking for jumpers.
“We don’t want to see anybody come to the bridge to harm themselves,” said Port Authority Police Officer Brian Ahern, a member of the squad. “It’s the last thing any officer on the bridge wants to see. We do everything in our power to prevent that.”
In his 12 years with the Port Authority, he’s saved more than 30 people attempting to leap from the bridge.
Sometimes he intervenes when they are still on the walkway and encourages them to get help.
When that doesn’t work, he grabs them just as they’re about to let go of the railing — and their lives.
“We’ve had some of our officers holding onto the individuals on the outer rail and their feet start to go because of the momentum and because the rail is approximately waist high,” said Ahern, a union trustee. “We have other officers anchoring that officer down, holding onto their legs and holding on their waist to make sure they don’t go over too.”
The cops, who operate in pairs, walk along the concrete upper level pedestrian walkways lining both sides of the eight-lane bridge every hour, bracing themselves against biting winds, the ear-shattering din of passing vehicles — and the potential heartbreak of having a life literally slip through their fingers.
On Oct. 5, Port Authority Police Officer Laverne Watson was nearly pulled over the side of the bridge as she grabbed 17-year-old Daniel Lomtevas in a desperate attempt to stop him from jumping.
Watson was driving when she saw the teen climb to the other side of the railing. She stopped her car in the middle of the roadway, froggered across four lanes of traffic and jumped two barricades before grabbing hold of Lomtevas — but the despondent teen had other plans.
“He struggled free and jumped off the bridge,” Port Authority Police Benevolent Association President Paul Nunziato recalled. “The last thing that cop saw was a young person take their own life, splashing in the water about 200-plus feet below her.”
“How do you go home and put your head on the pillow after that?” Nunziato asked. “Laverne’s a tough cop and I will take her in my fox hole any day, but I don’t care how tough you are, if a kid slips through your hands and hits the water — that’s a sh---y day.”
Ahern, like many other Port Authority cops, doesn’t like the nickname “Suicide Squad,” although they admit they’ve heard it. Officially, he’s a member of the Port Authority Police Department’s Walkway Patrol — Suicide Prevention Team.
With 70 rescues logged last year, the team has had more successes than losses.
A dozen people did successfully leap from the bridge in 2016 — a 33% decline from the 18 suicide deaths on the bridge in 2015, officials said.
Still, 12 people died on their watch — and the suicides continue.
On Feb. 11, Dr. Robert Ashton, a thoracic surgeon, jumped from the bridge, landing on the rocks below, officials said. Ashton was despondent over his divorce from ABC News Chief Women’s Health correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton, relatives said.
Ashton was one of two people who jumped from the bridge this year, officials said. At the same time, Port Authority cops have saved four people from killing themselves in 2017.
On Jan. 12, cops stopped a 56-year-old man dressed head-to-toe in camouflage from jumping, pulling him back from the other side of the rail.
“I’m going to jump in the river and end it all,” the man told police, according to sources.
On Feb. 8, the Suicide Squad stopped two people — including a transgender woman from the Middle East — from leaping from the bridge within 15 minutes.
Only a few of the squad members have crisis intervention training. Most rely on anti-terror training to spot suspicious activity.
Anything could trigger an interaction on the span: a distraught gaze, someone spotted pacing back and forth, or, more commonly, a visitor gingerly placing their property on the ground before stepping away from it.
“Suicide doesn’t have a face,” Ahern said. “They’re not telling us what they plan to do. They might have a smile on their face and walk right by you, not telling you directly, ‘Hey, listen. I’m here to hurt myself.’”
Like Watson, Port Authority Police Officer Danny Rodriguez also lost someone on the bridge.
A few years back, on the night shift, he responded to a report of a man threatening to jump from the bridge.
It was pitch black on the pedestrian walkway when he got there. The jumper was dressed in black.
Rodriguez saw an outline of the man as he climbed over the railing. His back to the water, the man stared at Rodriguez as the cop reached over to grab him.
“All I remember is him falling backwards, looking at me,” Rodriguez said. “I just saw his eyes in the dark.”
If a life isn’t saved, the officers often have to participate in the grim task of recovering the bodies from the water, Nunziato said.
With its dull, battleship gray metal spires, the George Washington Bridge lacks the nostalgic charm of the Brooklyn Bridge, but people flock to it, mostly for the view.
“We’re the Golden Gate Bridge of the east,” said Port Authority Police Officer Vincent Zappulla. “It’s an iconic bridge and it draws people to it.”
Sometimes, it brings people to the very top of it.
On Oct. 28, Pennsylvania resident Alberto Hernandez, distraught over losing his job, shucked off his shirt and scaled the bridge’s New Jersey tower, which officers call “the top of the steel.”
For more than an hour, Hernandez stood on the far corner of the tower, sometimes leaning on a surveillance camera as Port Authority cops and NYPD Emergency Services Unit officers talked him into surrendering.
“It was pretty frightening up there,” Zappulla said. “It was windy as heck and cold. We were afraid that the wind was going to blow him off the tower.”
Ultimately, Hernandez sat down on the ledge and began to cry.
At that moment, Zappulla knew they were going to be able to save him.
“We just kept saying to ourselves, ‘Sit down ... just sit down,’” Zappulla remembered. “And he did. Then we just knew we had to wait until he leans towards us.
“Eventually he is either going to go or he’s not. You can tell by the body language when they are not going to go,” Zappulla said. “When he started to cry and put his head in his hands ... that’s when you pounce on him. We tell him, ‘Hey guy, it’s going to be fine. It’s going to be OK. We got you.’”
Hernandez was taken to Bergen Regional Hospital for evaluation, where he was charged with interference with transportation, defiant trespass and disorderly conduct — all misdemeanors.
When he was released from the hospital he returned to the bridge to get his belongings — and to thank the cops who talked him out of killing himself.
“He gave me a big hug ... quite a few hugs, actually,” said Ahern, who was also involved in the save.
Opened in 1931, the famed span connecting Washington Heights to Fort Lee, N.J., is the only bridge run by the Port Authority where people killed themselves last year.
No suicides were reported on the other bridges run by the Port Authority in 2016, which include the Bayonne Bridge, the Goethals Bridge and the Outerbridge Crossing — all in Staten Island.
By comparison, four people jumped from the Verrazano Bridge linking Brooklyn to Staten Island in 2016. Two others jumped from the Throggs Neck Bridge between Queens and the Bronx. The Bronx Whitestone Bridge and RFK Bridge each had one jumper last year. All four bridges are run by the Tri-Borough Tunnel Authority.
Suicide totals on city-run bridges were not disclosed.
The city does not keep statistics of bridge jumpers, according to the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Suicides from Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges and other spans are lumped into a “death from elevated position” category, which also includes those who fall from tall buildings, officials said.
Thirty-seven people jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco last year — about three times the number of people who made the fatal plunge from the George Washington Bridge. An additional 162 potential suicides were stopped by their pedestrian walkway patrol, which is similar to the Port Authority’s Suicide Prevention Team.
The Golden Gate Bridge averages about 30 jumpers a year and has had more than 1,700 confirmed suicides since it opened in 1937, according to a San Francisco Chronicle report.
Construction for a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge is expected to begin this year, officials said.
Pedestrian safety fences for the George Washington Bridge won’t be built until 2024, following a bridge renovation project, a Port Authority spokesman said in January.
“One of the concerns we’ve heard is the aesthetics — the look going across the bridge,” Nunziato said. “They were talking about putting a net there instead. I don’t know if that means my guys will have to jump on the net to get the jumpers.”
To combat the delay, the Port Authority has the suicide squad.
It also installed surveillance cameras that are constantly monitored and six crisis hotline phones on each of the pedestrian walkways so suicidal people can get connected with a crisis counselor. There are also 42 signs — 21 on each side of the bridge, encouraging suicidal people to seek help, officials said.
Experts agree that the best way to stop people from committing suicide is to reduce “lethal access” — spots where people can jump from or hurt themselves — and take preventative steps before troubled people even get to the bridge.
“We have to get people at earlier stages of risk,” said Alan Ross, executive director of Samaritans Suicide Prevention Center. “If they get to the bridge, that’s a symbol of a need for greater prevention.”
The city owes the George Washington Bridge’s Suicide Prevention Team “a debt of gratitude” for stopping the suicide attempts, he said.
“These guys have a tremendously challenging task to feel that they have the responsibility to save people’s lives,” said Ross. “But we have a saying: You don’t save a person’s life. You help them get through a moment.”
Zappulla and his fellow officers know that even if they save someone from dying, two or three weeks later they may return to complete the job — an emotional reality that is hard to grasp.
Although the Port Authority does provide counselors for the cops, most just compartmentalize the grief and set it aside.
“You put it in its place,” Zappulla said. “You put it in a box because the next day it could happen again.”
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