Suicide watchman saves scores at death spot
Sunday 13 June 2010
A former life insurance salesman has "sold life" to scores of people trying to end it all at Australia's most notorious suicide spot.
In nearly 50 years Don Ritchie, 84, has saved at least 160 people at The Gap, a rocky cliff at the entrance to Sydney Harbour - and he is still on suicide watch.
Lost souls who stood atop the cliff, wondering whether to jump, say their salvation was a soft voice breaking the sound of the wind and the waves, asking: "Why don't you come and have a cup of tea?"
And when they turned to the stranger, they say his smile made them want to live.
Mr Ritchie, who lives across the street from The Gap, is widely regarded as a guardian angel who has shepherded countless people away from the edge.
What some consider grim, Mr Ritchie considers a gift.
"You can't just sit there and watch them," he said, 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 3ft fence separating them from the edge. Local officials say around one person a week commits suicide there and in January, Woollahra Council applied for nearly £1.2 million government funding to build a higher fence and tighten security.
In the meantime, Mr Ritchie keeps up his voluntary watch. The council recently named him and his wife of 58 years, Moya, 2010's Citizens of the Year.
He has saved 160 people, according to the official tally, but that is only an estimate. Mr Ritchie does not keep count but says he has watched far more walk away from the edge than go over it.
Dianne Gaddin likes to believe Mr Ritchie was at her daughter's side before she jumped in 2005. Though he cannot remember now, she is comforted by the idea that Tracy felt his warmth in her final moments.
"He's an angel," she says. "Most people would be too afraid to do anything and would probably sooner turn away and run away. But he had the courage and the charisma and the care and the magnetism to reach people who were coming to the end of their tether."
Each morning, Mr Ritchie climbs out of bed, pads over to the bedroom window of his modest, two-storey home, and scans the cliff. If he spots anyone standing alone too close to the precipice, he hurries to their side.
Some he speaks to are fighting medical problems, others suffering mental illness.
Sometimes, the ones who jump leave behind reminders of themselves on the edge - notes, wallets, shoes. Mr Ritchie once rushed over to help a man on crutches, but 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 his wife called the police. He would help rescue crews haul up the bodies of those who could not be saved and would invite the rescuers back to his house afterwards for a comforting drink.
It nearly cost him his life once. A chilling picture captured decades ago by a local news photographer shows Mr Ritchie struggling with a woman, inches from the edge. The woman is seen trying to launch herself over the side - with Mr 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 says he never tries to counsel, advise or pry. He just gives them a warm smile, asks if they would like to talk and invites them back to his house for tea. Sometimes, they join him.
By offering compassion, Mr Ritchie helps those who are suicidal think beyond the terrible present moment, says psychiatrist Gordon Parker, executive director of the Black Dog Institute, a mood disorder research centre that has supported the council's efforts to improve safety at The Gap.
"They often don't want to die, it's more that they want the pain to go away," Mr Parker said. "So anyone that offers kindness or hope has the capacity to help a number of people."
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