Durham County

Durham police officers save lives of suicidal people on bridges

Durham Police Department patch
Durham Police Department patch City of Durham

Within two hours on a January day, four Durham police officers saved the lives of two suicidal people. One was hanging from a bridge, and the other had attempted to hang himself.

It was evening rush hour Jan. 16 when Cpl. Lawrence Van Dewater, Officer A.P. Ramos and Officer J.M. Weiss rescued a woman who was threatening to jump off a newly constructed bridge over the Durham Freeway.

The officers were responding to a call about a woman who had threatened to jump off a bridge but had not given a specific location, according to a Police Department report released Monday.

Van Dewater saw the woman hanging onto the railing with both hands from the bridge over the freeway between the Briggs Avenue and Ellis Road exits.

"Van Dewater straddled a concrete barrier on the bridge to get closer to the woman and spoke with her, trying to keep her calm. When Officers Ramos and Weiss arrived, Officer Ramos distracted the woman for a split second, allowing Cpl. Van Dewater to grab her coat," the report said

The concrete barrier was too high to pull her over, so Van Dewater, still on the outer ledge of the bridge, was able to grab her by her waist and help lift her over the barrier.

In a separate incident earlier that day, Officer J.M. Berkstresser was able to cut down a man who was hanging and save his life, police said.

Berkstresser was responding to a call about a man who had threatened to kill himself and said he had a gun, the report said. He found the unresponsive man in a shed hanging by a rope from the ceiling, and cut him down.

Once Berkstresser lowered the man to a chair, the man regained consciousness and was able to speak with him, police say.

City Council member Charlie Reece said the two situations show that "our officers are willing to do whatever it takes to help folks in our community."

The officers were recognized in the report submitted to the City Council on Monday night along with the first quarter crime report presented by Durham Police Chief C.J. Davis.

Another bridge rescue

In February, several people helped police officers save a man who tried to jump off a bridge onto Interstate 85.

On Feb. 7, officers responded to a call at the bridge on Hillandale Road.

When Officer J.H. Wagstaff Jr. arrived, he saw retired Durham firefighter George Atkins, a Duke social worker, a Duke nurse and a man all standing by a man who had one leg over the bridge railing and who was saying he wanted to die.

When the man saw Wagstaff’s patrol car, he quickly tried to put his other leg over the railing so he could jump.

"I sprinted over to him, but had the citizens not been there I couldn’t have possibly gotten to him in time if he was keen on jumping right away," Wagstaff said in the report.

Another Durham police officer, Lt. D.M. Anthony, was on his way to work and ran up to help Wagstaff get the man away from the sidewalk on the bridge and bring him to safety, police say.

Other rescues

Other lifesaving actions by officers recognized in the report include Officer J.L. Hann, who gave CPR to a woman in cardiac arrest until medics arrived.

Durham Police Cpl. J.J. Barazandeh rescued two women from an icy creek off Dearborn Drive after their car ran off the road during the Jan. 17 snowstorm.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline has information at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. The hotline is 800-273-8255.

City Council member Vernetta Alston called the officers' lifesaving efforts "extraordinary."

"I thank the officers for their work," she said.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563; @dawnbvaughan