“A lot of pressure on us” – Perth Amboy officers reflect on bridge distress calls

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PERTH AMBOY -

Emotionally distressed people jumping or threatening to jump from one of the bridges over the Raritan River is a tragic reality that is all too common – and besides the families, one group affected by the reality is local police officers.

Back on Sept. 25, Perth Amboy Police Detective Wilson Tavares responded to the Victory Bridge on Route 35 in Perth Amboy to a report of a man clinging to a light pole beneath the bridge, and this week, Tavares is being honored by Chief Roman McKeon for the dramatic rescue.

“Wilson did a tremendous job, so Wilson. Congratulations,” says McKeon.

The city's police force is very young, more than half of the officers have less than five years’ experience.

But if history is any guide, at some point many of them will be called to do what Tavares did, and talk some troubled soul down off the bridge.

Between 2004 and 2014, there were 80 suicide attempts and 22 deaths at the Victory Bridge. In 2014, the state built a five-foot fence along the rails, but it still remains a tragic lure for those in distress.

“It does become a magnet,” says McKeon. “So people that might want to harm themselves and they're in a down spot, they automatically think let me go to Perth Amboy and go to the suicide bridge to commit the act. And it creates a lot of pressure on us as a department, a lot of pressure on us as a city and a lot of pressure on the officers as well.”

Officer Danny Gonzalez has extra training for these situations, and he's needed it.

“I've been to probably one, two, three four, five, over five rescues or attempts, says Gonzalez.

One in particular haunts him -- when police spent two hours talking with a distressed man on the bridge.

“We had some common ground,” says Gonzalez. “He's actually believe it or not our common ground was boxing. He liked to box and I remember my coach was actually training that kid. So I kind of knew him vaguely and the conversation went and we started talking about boxing.”

But the man let go, and Gonzalez had to watch him fall.

But that talk gave marine officers enough time to get in place. They rescued him and he survived.

“You question yourself, like oh, did I say something wrong?” says Gonzalez. “Did I do something wrong? Should I have said this? Should I listen more? Should I have spoken less? You know you start questioning yourself and your ability. Did I do that? Or was he going to jump anyway?”

Unlike some bridges, the Victory Bridge does not have a special phone connected to a crisis hotline.

But there are signs with the phone number.

The national suicide prevention hotline is 1-800-273-8255.

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