Concerned citizen talks suicidal man off bridge

The Roanoke Times | Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Jacob Saul yelled to the man dangling perilously about two stories above busy interstate traffic.

“Don’t do it, man!” he shouted. “I’m telling you right now. Don’t do it! You’re OK.”

Jacob Saul was recently recognized by Roanoke police for his role in helping to talk a man out of jumping off the Liberty Road bridge over Interstate 581 the night of June 19. Photo by Joel Hawksley | The Roanoke Times

Jacob Saul was recently recognized by Roanoke police for his role in helping to talk a man out of jumping off the Liberty Road bridge over Interstate 581 the night of June 19. Photo by Joel Hawksley | The Roanoke Times

The sun had just set on June 19, but Saul could make out a figure hanging off the curved fencing that lines the Liberty Road bridge over Interstate 581 in northwest Roanoke.

Saul was headed south in the left lane of the highway just before 9 p.m. when he spotted the young man leaning from the outside of the fence with nothing but his fingertips preventing him from falling.

The man looked ready to jump.

Roanoke police Capt. Sam Roman said the man, in his early to mid-20s, eventually was taken to Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital. Roman declined to say what happened to him, but he said suicidal individuals are usually evaluated and treated if necessary.

Saul was commended by police on July 24 for his actions during what turned into a nearly 45-minute incident that June night. The 31-year-old Roanoker built a rapport with the apparently suicidal man and aided police in their efforts to safely talk him down. Saul was given a plaque and posed for a picture with Chief Chris Perkins.

The father of a 4-year-old, Saul works as a recruiter for aerospace and aviation firms and moonlights twice a week as a bartender. He volunteers for Big Brothers Big Sisters, where he has an 11-year-old little brother.

He was leaving a birthday dinner for his mother at Olive Garden when he spotted the man. His girlfriend had left her cellphone charger in his car, so they met up at a gas station so she could retrieve it.

Had Saul not made that stop, he might have passed under the bridge moments earlier.

“That was about as divine intervention as it gets,” he said this week.

Saul pulled over a few yards south of the bridge and ran back to grab the man’s attention. He tried dialing 911 but was so nervous he at first dialed his brother.

When he reached an emergency dispatcher, Saul’s breathless voice revealed his fear that the man above would jump at any moment.

“Listen, there’s a kid sitting up on top of the bridge,” Saul can be heard telling the dispatcher in a recorded 911 call. “He is crying. He is getting ready to jump the f–k off this bridge.”

Saul interrupted himself and shouted to the man, trying to keep his voice louder than the sounds of rushing traffic.

“Sit down, brother! It’s OK!” Saul said, in screams captured on the 911 call. “Hold on, buddy! Listen! Listen! You’re OK – I’ll talk to you all night, buddy. I’m telling you right now, brother, I’ve been through it. You’re OK. This is not worth it. I’ve been there. I know life is hard sometimes. Whatever it is, I’m telling you, it gets better.”

Police soon arrived and emergency workers shut down southbound traffic on the interstate. For nearly 35 more minutes, Saul worked with officers to coax the man off the fence that extends at least eight feet above the bridge.

Every so often, the man would lean out, tense up and lock his face in visible anguish as he apparently prepared to jump, Saul said.

“Every time that happened, my heart was – I was tensing up with him,” Saul said.

As the minutes ticked by, Saul remained on the phone with a 911 dispatcher.

“He’s getting ready to do it right now,” Saul told her. “Oh my God. I am not trained for this.”

Saul said the man cursed and cried and spoke of the problems in his life. Among other things, the man lamented the death of his mother, his imprisoned father, and a girlfriend who wouldn’t let him see his son. Saul said the man complained that he recently tried to help a friend out of a tough situation, but that police were now eyeing him suspiciously, too.

Roman wouldn’t confirm those details, saying only that the man spoke of personal problems and difficulties.

Saul said he tried to get the man to focus on his presence there, rather than the officials.

“The officers were doing a great job, but the simple fact was he was one of those people who looks at the officers in a specific light, and he was agitated,” Saul said.

Eventually a police officer speaking to the man atop the bridge mentioned God in an attempt to calm him, Saul said. The man replied angrily that he knew the Bible’s contents.

“At the very end I was like, ‘Listen, the Bible says thou shall not kill. Well, I’m going to try and catch you, and this is probably going to kill me. You don’t want to hurt me.’ ”

The man asked Saul to tell his son that he loved him.

“I’m not going to do it,” Saul told the man. “He doesn’t want to hear it from some stranger.”

Just after 9:30 p.m., the man climbed down from the fence.

Saul said he was just in the right place at the right time. He said several people passed and honked before traffic was stopped, including one trucker who rolled down his window and yelled “Jump!”

“I’m just lucky I had the nerve to stop,” Saul said. “So many people didn’t.”

Roman praised Saul’s actions, noting the trust he was able to build with the agitated man.

“Any time a citizen takes it upon themselves to help in a meaningful way, I think it’s a great thing,” Roman said.

Saul isn’t sure if his efforts ultimately motivated the man to come down from the bridge that night, but he said he didn’t know what else to do.

“I’ve never been on a bridge getting ready to jump off, but we all have ups and downs in life,” Saul said. “Afterward I thought about it, and nobody stopped. What do you do? Do you just drive on? No.”

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