As he shivered on a narrow iron bar 220 feet above San Francisco Bay, 22-year-old Kevin Berthia heard a voice. It did not belong to the old wounds, crushing worries and inner demons that had driven him to the Golden Gate Bridge.
This voice, calm and kind, patient and reassuring, belonged to California Highway Patrol Officer Kevin Briggs. And it was all that stood between Berthia and all-but-certain death. For more than an hour, Briggs kept talking as the younger man poured out his troubles.
“I know you think things are bad, but they can get better,” Briggs said.
Berthia decided to believe him, and eight years later credits Briggs with saving his life.
On Wednesday, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention recognized the CHP with a public service award in suicide prevention in New York. The honor was accepted by Briggs, who colleagues say has a gift for connecting with those thinking of killing themselves.
They say he has had only one of them jump during his 23-year career.
“They make the decision,” said Briggs, who was promoted to sergeant five years ago and now trains other officers on how to work with suicidal people. “This is a huge decision, and when they come back, it starts a whole new life for them. I believe they are so stressed and so ready to go that when they step back over that rail, it takes a tremendous amount of courage.”
The occasion reunited Briggs and Berthia, who presented the award. The two men last saw each other at San Francisco General Hospital, where Berthia was brought for treatment following his March 11, 2005, suicide attempt.
“He never made me feel guilty for being in the situation I was in,” Berthia, now 30 and a married father of two, recalled of the conversation with Briggs on the bridge. “He made me feel like, ‘I understand why you are here, but there are alternatives.’”
More than 1,500 people have killed themselves by jumping off the Golden Gate bridge, making the span, which opened in 1937, one of the world’s most active suicide spots. A less known statistic is the much larger number of people who have been talked out of taking their lives by the CHP, U.S. Park Police and bridge security officers.
Last year, there were 33 confirmed and three unconfirmed suicides from the famous span. But the bridge district recorded 86 successful interventions.