Steve Duin: Vista Bridge volunteers reel as deadly decisions unfold

By Steve Duin, The Oregonian, August 12, 2013

Susan Cech (left) gets a hug from Tony Farrenkopf as Mary Brockman (right) looks on

Susan Cech (left) gets a hug from Tony Farrenkopf as Mary Brockman (right) looks on.

Susan Cech‘s phone rang at 6:26 a.m., and “Vista Bridge” was all that needed to be said. When she reached the bridge 10 minutes later, an SUV and a Portland police patrol car were still parked on the span, and the last person to see the jumper alive was huddled on the curb.

The bridge was open, the morning traffic oblivious. “All the action, really, was down below,” Cech said. “Driving across the bridge, you would have had no idea that someone jumped.”

The cops were dealing with that. Cech, a Trauma Intervention Program (TIP) volunteer, focused on the woman at the curb, a foot-patrol volunteer named Jan Schumacher. “The first responders are dealing with the victim, but you have other people — witnesses, family — who need emotional first aid.

“She was sitting over there, distraught, emotional, visibly upset. I had to take care of her.”

After the third suicide at the bridge in the last 10 weeks, you might argue that the extensive “Suicide Bridge” headlines are drawing a crowd. As construction continues on the 9-foot temporary barrier, you might side with the cyclist who swung by Monday morning screaming, “The design sucks. This totally sucks.”

But Cech — like Tony Farrenkopf, a psychologist who has enlisted with the Vista Bridge foot patrol — showed little interest in those questions. Their sole mission, Cech said, is to connect with, and listen to, people in crisis: “We’re not here to fix things.”

By all accounts, the SUV arrived on the bridge around 6 a.m., and its 51-year-old driver — after carefully turning on his emergency flashers — wasted little time before plunging to his death, landing on an access road south of the MAX line.

Schumacher begged him, “Please don’t do this,” said Ken Kahn, the lawyer who heads Friends of Vista Bridge: “She said she’s never seen human life so cheaply valued.”

And Schumacher was still wrestling with that when Cech arrived.

“She didn’t have her cell phone with her, on this of all days,” Cech said. “She had to flag a car down to call 9-1-1.”

Cech immediately sat down with Schumacher. “You don’t have to ask questions,” she said. “You follow their lead. Usually, they talk.”

At one point, Cech said, she crossed the bridge to see if police had removed the jumper’s body. When Schumacher said, “I’ll come with you, Cech asked, “Do you really want to do that?”

“I did a quick glance,” Cech said. “It was a very difficult thing to see. Sometimes, the police can’t cover the victim at certain crime scenes.”

For the rest of the hour, however, she sat and listened as Schumacher worked through things, waiting for a ride home.

“You can only imagine what she’s dealing with,” Cech said. “If you don’t think this is a possibility on your watch, you have no business being up here. But my heart aches for her. He probably didn’t even know he was talking to her. With suicide, they’re not in the right frame of mind. They’re not thinking about their children, their family, the ripple effect, all the unanswered questions that are left behind.”

Cech was a registered nurse for 18 years. She decided to join TIP’s effort on Vista Bridge after a 15-year-old Beaverton girl sailed off the iconic structure on June 5. She spent more than three months in extensive training, then walked her first shift last Wednesday.

“This is the most profound thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Cech said. “We land in someone’s life on the worst day of that life. To be a part of that, to be able to help in even the smallest way, is huge.”

And incredibly draining. Just before 9 a.m., Cech headed home, telling Farrenkopf she needed debriefing and a quiet afternoon.

“I do debriefing professionally,” Farrenkopf told me. “People have all the traumatic reactions. Shock. Disbelief. Outrage. Anger: ‘How could this person do this to us?’ Grief. The existential questions of what all this means.”

The bridge was silent, even as a construction crew fortified its defenses. On the section of railing where the jumper vanished, the white chalk reads, “You Are Beautiful Just the Way You Are.”

“Of course, he didn’t see that,” Farrenkopf said. “He didn’t read it.