Tuesday, June 15, 2010
The guardian of the The Gap- A suicide point.
In those bleak moments when the lost souls stood atop the cliff, wondering whether to jump, the sound of the wind and the waves was broken by a soft voice. "Why don't you come and have a cup of tea?" the stranger would ask. And when they turned to him, his smile was often their salvation.
For almost 50 years, Don Ritchie has lived across the street from Australia's most notorious suicide spot, a rocky cliff at the entrance to Sydney Harbour called The Gap. And in that time, the man widely regarded as a guardian angel has shepherded countless people away from the edge.
What some consider grim, Ritchie considers a gift. How wonderful, the former life insurance salesman says, to save so many. How wonderful to sell them life.
"You can't just sit there and watch them," says Ritchie, now 84, perched on his beloved green leather chair, from which he keeps a watchful eye on the cliff outside. "You gotta try and save them. It's pretty simple."
Since the 1800s, Australians have flocked to The Gap to end their lives, with little more than a 3-foot (1 meter) fence separating them from the edge. Local officials say about one person a week commits suicide there, and in January, the Woollahra Council applied for 2.1 million Australian dollars ($1.7 million) in federal funding to build a higher fence and overhaul security.
In the meantime, Ritchie keeps up his voluntary watch. The council recently named Ritchie and Moya, his wife of 58 years, 2010's Citizens of the Year.
He's saved 160 people, according to the official tally, but that's only an estimate. Ritchie doesn't keep count. He just knows he's watched far more walk away from the edge than go over it.
Each morning, he climbs out of bed, pads over to the bedroom window of his modest, two-story home, and scans the cliff. If he spots anyone standing alone too close to the precipice, he hurries to their side.
Some he speaks with are fighting medical problems, others suffering mental illness. Sometimes, the ones who jump leave behind reminders of themselves on the edge — notes, wallets, shoes. Ritchie once rushed over to help a man on crutches. By the time he arrived, the crutches were all that remained.
In his younger years, he would occasionally climb the fence to hold people back while Moya called the police. He would help rescue crews haul up the bodies of those who couldn't be saved. And he would invite the rescuers back to his house afterward for a comforting drink.
It all nearly cost him his life once. A chilling picture captured decades ago by a local news photographer shows Ritchie struggling with a woman, inches from the edge. The woman is seen trying to launch herself over the side — with Ritchie the only thing between her and the abyss. Had she been successful, he would have gone over, too.
These days, he keeps a safer distance. The council installed security cameras this year and the invention of mobile phones means someone often calls for help before he crosses the street.
But he remains available to lend an ear, though he never tries to counsel, advise or pry. He just gives them a warm smile, asks if they'd like to talk and invites them back to his house for tea. Sometimes, they join him.
"I'm offering them an alternative, really," Ritchie says. "I always act in a friendly manner. I smile."
A smile cannot, of course, save everyone; the motivations behind suicide are too varied. But simple kindness can be surprisingly effective. Mental health professionals tell the story of a note left behind by a man who jumped off San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way to the bridge, the man wrote, I will not jump.
"A smile can go a long way — caring can go even further. And the fact that he offers them tea and he just listens, he's really all they wanted," Hines says. "He's all a lot of suicidal people want."
In 2006, the government recognized Ritchie's efforts with a Medal of the Order of Australia, among the nation's highest civilian honors. It hangs on his living room wall above a painting of a sunshine someone left in his mailbox. On it is a message calling Ritchie "an angel that walks amongst us."
He smiles bashfully. "It makes you — oh, I don't know," he says, looking away. "I feel happy about it."
Despite all he has seen, he says he is not haunted by the ones who were lost. He cannot remember the first suicide he witnessed, and none have plagued his nightmares. He says he does his best with each person, and if he loses one, he accepts that there was nothing more he could have done.
Nor have he and Moya ever felt burdened by the location of their home.
"I think, 'Isn't it wonderful that we live here and we can help people?'" Moya says, her husband nodding in agreement.
By KRISTEN GELINEAU
Associated Press Writer (updated 12:07 p.m. ET June 13, 2010)