Australia mourns 'Angel of the Gap' Don Ritchie, the man who talked 160 out of suicide

 

Sydney

For nearly five decades he gazed out of his Sydney home overlooking the Pacific Ocean, inspired by one of Australia's most picturesque views. But it was not just a love for the sea that drew him to the dramatic panorama.

Don Ritchie's window-watching had a far greater purpose. Since l964 he has saved at least 160 lives, though some say the true figure is much higher. Mr Ritchie, who died this week at the age of 86, was known as the Angel of the Gap, a title earned for persuading people not to throw themselves off the notorious Australian suicide spot.

Like Beachy Head on the Sussex coast, the sheer cliffs at the mouth of Sydney harbour have long acted as a magnet to those who have lost all hope. But thanks to his calm voice and sympathetic manner, Mr Ritchie offered a helping hand to the desperate by engaging them in conversation on the cliff-top in their hour of need.

A modest man who did not court celebrity or praise, Mr Ritchie would spot would-be suicides from his home and slowly walk across the road to them. At the cliff-edge he would simply smile and ask them, "Can I help you in some way?" More often than not the quiet approach worked, though on some occasions he risked his own life by physically restraining the more determined from making their final leap.

Afterwards he would invite them back to his home for a cup of tea and a chat and occasionally they would return years later to thank him for saving their life. One survivor gave him a painting of an angel with the rays of the sun and the simple message: "An angel who walks amongst us."

"My ambition has always been to just get them away from the edge, to buy them time, to give them the opportunity to reflect and give them the chance to realise that things might look better the next morning," he once confided.

"You just can't sit there and watch them," he added. "You've got to try and save them."

Mr Ritchie's daughter, Sue, said her father enjoyed his ocean view, but was equally determined to watch out for troubled souls. He once said an offer of help "was all that was needed to turn people around and he would say not to underestimate the power of a kind word and a smile," she told the Sydney Morning Herald.

He was "a great mixture of strength and compassion... an everyday person who did an extraordinary thing for many people that saved their lives, without any want of recognition," she added.

Mr Ritchie was a seaman in the Royal Australian Navy during the Second World War and witnessed the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay in l945.

Back in Sydney he worked in the insurance industry. He would later tell friends of the people he had saved: "I was a salesman for most of my life and I sold them life."

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