Sometimes, when Lt. Ernie Arata is driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, people strike him in a "funny" way.
It may be rainy or windy and they are not wearing a coat. Or it may be that they aren't carrying a camera, like the tourists. Or they are crying, or running pell-mell, or walking as if in a daze. A few of the funny ones stand and stare for long moments at the white dots of seagulls bobbing up and down below the bridge or gaze at the grand expanse of water that changes from turquoise-blue to pea-green.
The funny ones don't stop to read the plague on bride history. Their body language suggests they are thinking of others things.
Arata, 52, a graying bridge district officer charged with patrolling the orange span for traffic breakdown and other human irregularities, says he can't put his finger on the funny feeling, but it makes him tense slightly and brings on a blush. The funny feeling came over him when he saw a shaggy-haired young man leaning over the bridge. Arata tapped him on the shoulder and inquired after his well-being. The man grinned.
"My God, man," he gaped. "I'm just looking at the bridge, I'm not going to jump."
Arate just figures, when he gets the funny feeling, "It's safer to check them out."
And that's what he is doing on this sultry, summery evening in February when the weather just seems too fine for anyone to consider jumping off the bridge. The sun is sinking into the Pacific, casting a pink-ochre shadow on the white skyline of promise. The temperature is a balmy 62 degrees. A slight wind is blowing out of the west and over the daytrippers - doctors, architects, lawyers, stockbrokers - landed gentry on their way home to Redwood, Mill Valley, San Rafeal and beyong.
But on this warm, winter night that hints at the rebirths of spring, two people will try to kill themselve by leaping 23 stories - and Arata will stop them.
These are lovey-dovey couples on 10 seeds, tourists trundling instamatic memories back to cars at Vista Point and a curious young amn in jeans and a blue shirt.
Curious that is, to Arata, who has jived, bluffed, swee-talked, cajoled, threatened, begged and wrestled about 60 would-be jumpers off the rails in his eight years on patrol. As he cruises the bridge in his white Dodge Polara, he makes a mental note of the young man in the blue shirt. Minutes later he parks the car and strides into the bridge District Command Bunker, where Sgt. George Chittum, 59, watches the toll plaza and the TV monitors fed by two cameras scanning the bridge.
Soon, Chittum squints at the TV screen and zooms in the camera for a closer look. There is a tiny figure climbing over the rail below the south tower.Arata is out the door. "I bet it's the guy in the blue shirt," he says, and burns rubber out of the parking lot. "Hold on."
Sgt. Ray McGill, 43, drives behind in the tow truck to block the lane so no one will run into Arata. Tow trucks with flashing lights have proven useful in breaking a would-be jumper's train of thought - "they wonder whose car broke down," he says - and buy the bridge patrol valuable seconds. A flashing light stop a patrol car, officers reason, might frighten a potential suicide victim into thinking they have done something wrong and more guilt is not needed at such a time. (However, one young would-be suicide victim climbed down and surrendered after a highway partolman pulled his gun and said, "Get down here or I'll shoot.")
"If he is really bent on self-destruction, he can find a way to kill himself," says Arata. "He can jump off the Transamerica Tower or put a gun to his head. But if they come to the bridge, my feeling is they're asking for help."
The blood rushes to Arata's face. The adrenalin is pumping. He bounds out of the car.
The man in the blue shirt holds onto the outer railing with one arm. he pushes out over the bay, then pulls back like an accordion. It is dark now. He is looking down. He is shaking.
The young man appears to be in his early 20s, with black hair, an insufficient goatee and eyes hounted by fear.
He pushes out again as if to launch himself into the abyss, almost loses his balance and jerks back.
"Can I talk to you?" asks Arata, a deep caring in his voice. "No" yells the man. "I'll jump if you touch me. Tell them to get back."
"I wont't lay a hand on you" promises Arata. "C'mon back over. No one's going to touch you."
"What happens if I jump from here?" moans the young man, looking down again."What will happen if I jump?"
Arata takes long strides around the tower, pretending to shoo away curious pedestrians, wheels around in a nifty pirouette practiced over the years, grabs the man's shoulders and pulls him over the rail to safety. he lied. Charles Hippolyte, 43, a 250-pound bridge workers and former tackle for the University of Montana, gets the assist. Handcuffs are slapped on.
Sometimes you only get one good shot and you have to take it. There is no time to second guess. It's instinct, like the funny feeling. And sometimes you make the save, and sometimes you don't.
"No, no, no," screams the man. He is led to the back seat of the highway patrol cat. "I've tried three times, three times and I've failed," cries. he doesn't clarify if he tried to kill himself three times or if he has failed at something else. His torment is a mystery to be unraveled later by the psychiatrists. But the young man does not appear to be overly grateful for a second chance.
As Arata rolls around on the ground trying to subdue the young man, a tourist runs up, breathing hard. He points out to mid-span and blurts, "There's a woman out there on the other side of the rail. She says she's scared."
The reporter is the only one left. He has never talked with someone trying to make such an all-or-nothing life decision, but he is the only one free, so he sprints out 50 yards and finds a Chinese-American woman named Elizabeth on the wrong side of the rail.
She appears very dazed. She looks down and almos loses her balance. She moans and says she is scared.
"Hi," says the reporter, trying to imitate Arata's railside manner. "What's your name?"
"What do you mean, asking my name at a time like this?" she says.
"Well what is your name?" he asks. "Elizabeth."
"Look, Elizabeth, why don't you come back over here and we'll go have a cup of coffee and talk.?"
"I can't, I mean I can't get back over. I mean I don't know how I got here. I'm scared." Suddenly, Arata and Hipplyte lunge out of nowhere and yank her over the side. She is husky and is wearing jeans and a baggy brown sweater. Patrolman Ed Loeflker handcuffs her. She insists the reporter ride with her to Mt. Zion. "I want him to go with me," she says. "He's nice.
In the back seat, pudgy hands cuffed behind her back, she rolls around like a Bozo The Clown punching bag. SHe is very drunk and says she took a taxi to the bridge after "Some guy hit me" in a bar brawl. The next thing she knew, she was staring at the cith from the wrong side of railing.
"It sort of blew me away." says Elizabeth. "I looked down and it was really heavy duty, real dark and shallo like it was going to envelop me. And I said to myself, 'Oh s-. Oh mercy. I don't want to jump into this bull -'. So I yelled for help."
She turns to Loefler, whose curly blond hair and mustache give him a strong likeness to Robert Redford, and asks, "Hey, do you have a joint?"
The patrolman shakes his head. "Well, I have some great hash oil in my purse," say Elizabeth. "Let's boogie." Then she passes out.
Later, Arata tells the reporter he is very lucky to have been on the scene on such a busy night. "Unbelievable," says Hippolyte, describing an evening with two would-be jumpers at the same-time.
The ex-college football player feels elated from the rescues, "I love life," he says, "I don't want to see anybody go over. We all get down for a few minutes, but we get back up. I just figure if you can save 'em for a few minutes, they might be back up the next time around."