Stepping back, with help, from the edge of despair

This Just In. . .

January 19, 1996|By DAN RODRICKS

He could have been waiting for the 10:52 Amtrak -- a light in the darkness to take him away forever. That's speculation, of course. No one knew why the fellow climbed 40 feet to a catwalk on a signal bridge over railroad tracks. Maybe he intended to jump, and maybe he wanted to time his jump with the last northbound train of the night.

Or maybe he considered jumping into the power lines below.

Or maybe he just wanted help.

This happened in Chase, in eastern Baltimore County, on the evening of Friday, Jan. 5, as blizzard winds were whipping their way east. It was 10 p.m., and the temperature in Chase was falling fast. Up on the signal bridge, the man stood, frozen still, and waited.

Perhaps for the train.

An anonymous call to Baltimore County's 911 center came from a pay phone at a nearby market. The message was simple but urgent: Someone was on the signal bridge off Harwood Park Drive.

A few minutes later, uniformed officers arrived from the Essex Precinct and gathered on the tracks below. They looked up to the signal bridge but could see only shoes and legs and the red dot of a burning cigarette. Someone had climbed behind the steel structure at the far end of the tower. There appeared to be a hooded head where the cigarette burned. One of the officers called up to it.

"Leave me alone!" was the reply.

Several miles away, at his part-time job at Golden Ring Mall, Rick Barbato, a detective sergeant with the Baltimore County police, received a page. Barbato has a regular assignment in drug investigations. He's been on the county force for 18 years. In 1988, he volunteered for the county's hostage negotiation unit. Barbato and the other 11 members of the unit are on call for all kinds of crisis intervention, some involving criminals, some involving sad and confused people who believe they have reached the edges of their lives and consider jumping off.

"I like being in the middle of things," Barbato says. "I'm the type who likes rolling my sleeves up and facing a challenge, resolving a crisis."

And saving a few lives along the way.

Barbato was the first from his unit to arrive at the tracks. Soon, Lt. Chuck Rapp joined him, as well as Sgt. Chuck Hart, Sgt. Steve Gabis and other members of the negotiation unit. First with flashlights, then with floods, Barbato and the others located the climber. All they could see were the two shoes and two legs and, occasionally, the red glow from the cigarette. Their "subject" was on a platform, below the catwalk, huddled behind steel.

Trains scheduled through the area were stopped in their tracks, including the northbound Amtrak. Barbato walked out below the signal bridge and looked up. What to say? What to do? What was this guy's name anyway?

Someone said his name might be John.

"John," Barbato called out in the freezing darkness. "We're here to help you. Nobody here is going to hurt you."

Silence. And no movement in the shoes.

"We can't help you until you tell us what the problem is."

No reply.

"It's freezing out here," Barbato yelled. "Why don't you come down and get something to eat, have something hot to drink? Then we can talk about it. Come on, now."

More silence. And for the longest time, the feet did not move. Once in a while, Barbato could see the glow of a cigarette. On the tracks on the other side of the signal bridge were Hart and Gabis.

Baltimore County has had this special unit since 1978. In that time, it has responded to 281 calls involving gunmen, hostages and people like this -- pitiful souls standing on the edge of their lives. Of the 281 calls, only two ended in suicides. "When people are under such great stress, all logic is lost," says Rapp, commander of the unit. "We try to talk to them, get them thinking that their problem -- whatever it is -- is just temporary, but suicide is permanent. We try to get them thinking of the long-term impact, on their family, for instance."

But here, on the railroad tracks in Chase, there was no family. The police didn't even know the climber's name. Someone near the scene thought he might be a fellow named Tom.

"Tom?" Barbato yelled. "Why don't you come down and let us help you? It's really cold out here. Come down and get something hot to drink. We can't help you, Tom, unless you tell us what the problem is."

Barbato saw the feet move. They turned completely around, away from him. Now the climber was facing Chuck Hart and Steve Gabis, on the other side of the signal bridge.

Barbato could see the feet move again, inch by inch, from the platform to the narrow catwalk. Then, ever so slowly, they seemed to shuffle toward the end of the bridge with the ladder. By now, Hart was doing most of the talking: "Come on now, that's it, take a couple of more steps. We know you can do it."

The climber said nothing. But he kept moving, on and on, inch by inch, down to the ladder. And then he spoke. He promised to climb down the ladder if Hart and Gabis, who had climbed halfway up, promised to do the same.

The police complied, and the climber kept his promise. He touched the ground at midnight. Hands reached for him. He was taken to a police car, then to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation.

Rick Barbato and Chuck Hart stayed with him, talked with him, learned all about him.

His name, it turned out, was neither John nor Tom. ("We were calling him by the wrong name the whole time he was up there," Barbato said later.) He was 26 years old and unemployed; he'd been living, unhappily, with his parents since his divorce, and now his girlfriend had kicked him out of his last refuge on a winter night. So, miserable and defeated, he climbed to the edge. But men whose names we know better now pulled him back, and down to earth.

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