Negotiators trained to talk broken souls back from brink

This Just In...

April 28, 2003|By DAN RODRICKS

FOUR HOURS into Wednesday, April 16, a 37-year-old man with a history of schizophrenia abandoned his van on the Key Bridge, to the east of its high point of 185 feet, and stepped onto the 4-inch crown of a concrete wall that lines the main deck of the bridge. The man balanced himself on the wall, his back to the open air and the Patapsco River below, and stayed there for more than 15 hours, threatening to jump.

Maryland Transportation Authority Police closed the bridge to traffic in both directions and thousands of rush-hour commuters were detoured through Baltimore's two harbor tunnels - all because of this one pathetic soul.

Chris Stihel, a transportation authority officer, was the first to try to save this soul by speaking to him in the morning darkness on the bridge.

Then Jack Gentry, a city police officer and one of 20 men and women who volunteer for the city's crisis negotiation team, arrived. Then came Lt. Jerry Lober, a longtime crisis negotiator who had talked to broken men on bridges many times before, but not at such an altitude.

Lober knew his team's job would not be easy. The man was large and heavy it would take more than one officer to physically subdue him, if it came to that, and those officers would risk going off the bridge in the effort.

So, even before Lober used his cell phone to call Wayne Hunt, a psychologist, for some advice, he knew what had to be done - he and his team would have to wear the man down with words. It's what they are trained to do.

Gentry, then Officer Lynee Carter, Officer Essex Weaver, Officer Mason Land - they all stood out there and talked to the man on the concrete wall, trying to get him to step down.

They discovered his name through motor vehicle records, contacted his family, learned that he was schizophrenic and had attempted suicide before. For hours - as the rest of the world went about its business, as ships passed under the bridge - they tried to keep a conversation going with him, though the man veered into religious babble that made rational dialogue almost impossible.

Several times, the man made promises he did not keep: "Give me 15 more minutes, and I'll come down."

Ten hours went by before the man moved from the position he'd taken at 4:03 a.m., but then it was only to sit down.

At 2 p.m., he planted himself on the concrete wall, the Patapsco still to his back, and accepted a soft drink from the officers.

Long into the afternoon, Lober's team talked and talked and talked. It's what they do.

The man did not move.

"Give me 15 more minutes."

Finally, the negotiators decided to take a chance on "TPIs" - third party intermediaries - in this case, the man's brother, mother and a priest to whom he'd written a letter (mentioning in it not suicide, but college basketball's Final Four) left in the van. Lober knew that bringing in TPIs is something the team does only after careful consideration. Well-meaning relatives or friends can make a situation worse. Some of them might have contributed to the man being on the bridge in the first place.

But this was not the case on April 16, Lober believed, so first the brother, then the mother, then the priest all came to the bridge and spoke gently to the man on the concrete wall.

"We love you," they said. "We're here for you." Another hour slipped by, then two.

All of us went about our business that day while high above the Patapsco these police officers, kin and a priest tried to keep this broken soul from ending his life.

Lober had been doing this kind of work since the 1980s. Years ago, a man shot and wounded his brother, then barricaded himself in a West Lexington Street rowhouse. Lober spoke to the gunman through a door for close to seven hours, until he finally surrendered. Something happened that day - something like Lober finding his niche - and when the chance came to be a negotiator, he took it.

And that's what he and his comrades do - they reach out and try to bring the hopeless back from the brink.

It was about 7 p.m. now and Lober's team decided to execute a plan to end the ordeal. With the help of Baltimore County police, they found a way to tether officers with safety lines. And, when the moment was right, they reached for the man, pulled him off the concrete wall, handcuffed him and sent him to a hospital.

The mother of the man was still there and thanked Lober and his team for saving her son. Then the lieutenant went home to a late dinner with his family. It was 7:40 p.m. when traffic started moving over the bridge again.

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