Two police officers flanked a woman poised to jump to her death from a downtown St. Paul bridge into the Mississippi River as District Fire Chief Conrad Ertz inched ever closer from behind.
With barely a word spoken among the three, Ertz got within arm’s length of the woman seated under one of the Robert Street Bridge’s center arches. One officer spoke with her as the other radioed back in a hushed tone to emergency dispatch the unfolding script with the uncertain ending.
“She’s on the other side of the railing now,” Officer Len Wall reported from the bridge Tuesday afternoon. “We’re trying to talk her out of it.”
A moment later, Wall updated with “she is over the water.”
It was time. Ertz signaled one officer a look and the other a sideways flick of his right hand.
A bear of a man at 6 feet 5 inches tall and roughly 290 pounds, Ertz took one purposeful and quick stride forward, hooked his arms around the unsuspecting woman from behind and pulled her to a safe spot on the pavement, a rescue captured by a passerby on video and making the rounds on social media.
“We have her off the railing,” Ertz told dispatch, and with that Wall and fellow officer Shawn Longen joined Ertz in holding the woman, more for comfort than restraint.
Ertz said the three wanted the woman in her early 20s to know that “it will be OK, that we cared about her, and we do. … She has a lot to live for.”
Before turning her over to medical personnel, the downtown station chief said, “We held her for a minute, just to let her know that she is safe.”
Longen said the woman told him as she contemplated taking her life that “she felt like there was nobody who loved her. I told her there are people who love you. ... ‘Come over the barrier and talk to me.’ ”
The officer said he later spoke with her for 15 to 20 minutes at the hospital and “shared some personal experiences with her and tried to give her some hope.”
Ertz, a 20-year Fire Department veteran, said he has been to “a handful” of suicide attempts involving threats to jump, including one recently on the nearby High Bridge that ended tragically.
“Quite honestly, most [rescue efforts] have not been so successful,” he said, “so this is very special.”
Unbeknown to Ertz at the time, passerby Matthew Seaton was recording the lifesaving moment on video, which made it to social media later that day.
“The guys in the fire station started showing me and saying, “ ‘You’re on Facebook.’ ”
Seaton, who works downtown and recorded the drama with his cellphone, said he took a break from a “busy day, just to sort out my head” and was walking on the bridge when he spotted the woman.
“Just as I was thinking about what I could do, the police arrived,” Seaton said, relieved to be free of such a dilemma.
It wasn’t long before Ertz showed up and “was able to really gently bear hug her and get her back,” Seaton said. “He reacted very quickly, almost instinctively.”
For 24-hour crisis counseling in the metro area, please call 612 379 6363 or, from anywhere, call 1-800-273-8255.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482