It happened more than a decade ago, but every year on this day I think about it.
We received the call as a potential suicide. The crew of a commercial ambulance, transferring a psychiatric patient to a Boston hospital from a suburban mental health facility, spotted the patient on the Tobin Bridge. He was standing at the edge of the roadway, looking out over the water. They didn't feel comfortable stopping to investigate because they already had a patient of their own.
I felt cheerful as we headed up onto the bridge. Unlike most people, I've always enjoyed working on Christmas Eve. This is the one night during the year when everyone we encounter seems to be in a good mood, and nobody gives us a hard time. Plus, during the night of Christmas Eve, I always look forward to the next day, to the gathering of my family.
The Tobin Bridge is not an unusual place for suicides. It is, however, an unusual place for suicidal attempts. More than 300 feet tall, it provides the ideal platform from which to jump. We've had a handful of people survive leaps from the Tobin over the years, but they die far more often than they survive.
We arrived to find a motorcycle parked in the breakdown lane, with nobody around. I wondered if the man had already jumped. A police cruiser was ahead of us, having crossed the bridge into Chelsea moments earlier without locating anyone.
We stopped at the motorcycle and looked up and down the bridge. It was a cold night, with a bright moon. I remember every detail about that night, after all this time.
Ahead, a man climbed up from beneath the bridge. Until that night, I'd never known that a catwalk runs beneath the deck, allowing the bottom to be repainted without scaffolding. The man had hopped over the railing and shimmied down onto the catwalk upon the approach of the police officer. Then he'd climbed back up, not expecting us to come along immediately afterward.
He was a young man, not much older than 20. He appeared healthy and physically fit. When he saw the ambulance, he froze, standing outside the railing, gripping it tightly with both hands.
I opened my door and and approached slowly. Putting my hands in my pockets to appear nonchalant, I asked, "What's going on?"
In retrospect, this sounds pretty silly. But they don't give you any scripts in paramedic school. You make everything up as you go along. I had to start someplace.
The man looked at me. I could tell he'd been crying. "Why'd she have to do it tonight?" he asked. "Of all nights, why tonight?"
"Who?" I asked. "Who are you talking about?"
"My wife. We've been married a month. And tonight she announces that she made a mistake. She doesn't want to be married to me any more. On Christmas Eve she tells me this! After just a month! She couldn't wait two or three more days?"
"Is it really worth ending your life?" I asked. "There's no possibility that you'll ever find anyone else?"
At this point he removed one of his hands from the railing. He was leaning back slightly, with only the fingers of one hand keeping him from falling.
"I've been out drinking all night," he said. "I went from one bar to another. I thought it would make me feel better. It didn't."
He leaned back further. He held the rail with just his fingertips now. Three hundred feet of air stood between him and the harbor. We winced.
The police car had crossed into the neighboring city of Chelsea, and had circled around to come up behind us. The police officer walked up behind me.
Suddenly the man performed an incredibly thoughtful act. He didn't want us to feel as if we'd failed. Pointing to each of us in turn, he said, "It's not your fault, and not your fault, and not your fault. But I'm going."
With that, he turned and leaped headfirst over the edge. All three of us rushed forward, but we weren't nearly close enough to stop him. We got to the railing just in time to see his body splash into the water far below.
For an instant, none of us moved. Between the cop, my partner, and me, we had more than thirty years of experience, and all three of us had seen many people die. But nothing can prepare you for a moment like this. At that moment, I thought to myself, I just saw a man kill himself. It was the first and only time anyone has committed suicide right in front of me.
Then I snapped out of it. I keyed my microphone and reported what had happened to the dispatcher. I told him we would continue across the bridge. From there we would make our way to the waterfront.
We flew into Chelsea with the police officer right behind us. He, too, was calling for help. Since Chelsea is a different city, we don't know our way around. We doubled back, taking a guess at which way to go, aiming in the general direction of the harbor.
Soon we found ourselves at a yacht club. My partner grabbed a pair of bolt cutters from a rear compartment and snipped the chain on the gate. We drove up the clubhouse. There we scaled a fence and ran out onto the network of piers.
Before long, the harbor came alive with red and blue lights. The city's fireboat arrived. And a pair of police boats. The Coast Guard. Vessels zigzagged beneath the bridge, scanning the water with searchlights.
Since we were the ones who'd seen the man go in, we had the best idea of where he might be. The fire boat picked us up at the pier. We directed the captain to a location directly beneath we're we'd talked to the young man.
Over at the pier, a team of police divers suited up. The wind was bitterly cold, and I couldn't imagine jumping into the water to conduct a search. But that's the duty they volunteer to do.
The police boat ferried the divers to our location. They went in two at a time, alternating every ten minutes or so. Occasionally we'd catch a glimpse of a flashlight underwater, but mostly the water appeared black. I don't know how they managed to see anything down there.
The fireboat captain asked me to show him exactly where the man had jumped. I pointed. "They won't find him tonight," he said, shaking his head. "There's a ridge on each side of the channel, then it drops off to deeper water in the center, where it's dredged. He went into the center of the channel, where the mud is softest. I'll bet he went twenty or thirty feet into the mud. A couple of days from now, the gasses in his body will expand, and he'll become buoyant, and he'll come to the surface. With the tides and currents this time of year, they'll find him over by the airport."
It was hard to believe that anyone could know so much about the subject. But that's what comes from a quarter-century of experience, I suppose.
The divers returned to the boat. They gave us the wave-off sign. They hadn't found a trace of the man.
A Coast Guard helicopter had been called up from Cape Cod. It arrived just as the divers were returning to the pier. It hovered low, beneath the bridge--something I'd never seen before. After a few minutes, it raced off into the sky. The fireboat's radio told us why: A five-alarm fire was blazing not far away, near the Chelsea waterfront. It was interfering with the helicopter's infrared scanning equipment. When the crewman adjusted the gain upward, he could see only the heat of the fire. When he adjusted it downward, there wasn't enough sensitivity to pick up the man's body temperature. Bad timing, and bad luck, pure and simple.
The fireboat dropped us off. An EMS supervisor asked if wanted the rest of the night off, or if we wanted counseling. Both of us declined. It was a sad call, but I didn't feel particularly distraught.
I think I underestimated the effect it had on me, though. Later, when I went home to bed, I dreamed about the call. It wasn't a nightmare, exactly, more like a replay of the entire event. I woke up, realized it was just a dream, and went back to sleep. The dream started all over again. And the next night, it happened again. This was the only time in my twenty-three-year career that I ever dreamed about a call more than once.
Three days after the man jumped, a fisherman spotted a body in the water. This happened right near the end of a runway at Logan Airport, just as the fireboat captain had predicted. A police boat removed him from the harbor. He was identified by the medical examiner as the man who had committed suicide in front of us.
He'd turned up precisely where the fireboat captain had predicted. The estimate had been off by just one day.