Officers save suicidal man from almost certain death in icy Santiam River in Jefferson

Deputy Jason Bernards, MCSO

Deputy Jason Bernards, MCSO

From the Oregonian, January 11, 2011

A Marion County sheriff’s deputy helped save a suicidal 31-year-old man from almost certain death Saturday in the bone-chilling Santiam River.

The sheriff’s office was alerted about 9 p.m. by the man’s family in south Salem, who said he had left home in a distressed state and was headed to a gravesite in Jefferson.

The man, who was not identified, has been plagued with mental health problems and had suicidal episodes in the past. They said he was driving a bronze 2002 Hyundai and had a cell phone.

Sheriff’s deputies called him, but he didn’t answer. So, they contacted his cell phone provider, which tracked his cell phone pings to south Jefferson.

About 10 p.m., Sgt. Don Sweet spotted the man’s Hyundai on Mill Street near the Jefferson Bridge over the Santiam River. He heard a voice, looked below and saw a man pacing nervously near the river’s edge. It was dark and cold and the icy river current below was swift. The man’s clothing was wet, as if he had already been in the water.

Sweet called in other officers, including a canine team, and kept talking to keep the man’s attention.

Marion County sheriff's officers save a suicidal man pacing on Jefferson Bridge above the icy Santiam River.

Marion County sheriff's officers save a suicidal man pacing on Jefferson Bridge above the icy Santiam River.

Deputy Jason Bernards arrived and tried to sneak up on the man, but he spotted him and started running. Bernards tackled the man and together they tumbled in the 38 degree water.

“Bernards is a big guy and at one point he couldn’t touch bottom,” said Don Thomson, spokesman for the Marion County Sheriff’s Office.

The riverbank drops off sharply at that section. Had Bernards let go, the man almost certainly would have been swept into deeper, faster moving to his death.

But another deputy who arrived at the scene, Brian Dunkin, managed to pull the officer and the 31-year-old man to safety.

“We cuffed him for his own protection,” Thomson said. “Then we had him treated for hypothermia.”

He was taken to Salem Hospital for treatment and a mental evaluation.

Bernards, who was shivering from the icy water, ended up changing his uniform and going back out on patrol.

“He works the 3 to 3 shift,” Thomson said.