Georgetown Prep cross-country runners Archer Chapin and Liam Wedderburn usually don’t run together during practice. But on one fateful afternoon, the two did, and they found themselves in a position to prevent a man from committing suicide from the top of a pedestrian bridge overlooking Interstate 495 on the border between Rockville and Bethesda.
In practice, runners are split into groups based on times. But Chapin and Wedderburn, both seniors, were late to practice on Oct. 22 and therefore paired up with one another. Instead of taking the usual route through the nearby woods and over grass, the runners were instructed to take a gravel path down a trolley trail, which leads to the pedestrian bridge.
The sequence of events that led to Chapin and Wedderburn running together may have saved a life. Montgomery County Police confirmed the incident and stated at least one other call was made about a man standing on top of this pedestrian bridge.
“There’s still some shock value,” Chapin said. “I’ve mostly thought about mortality a little more than usual.”
Chapin and Wedderburn slowed their pace to a full stop once they found the man climbing up to the top of the pedestrian bridge. It didn’t take long to figure out what was happening as instinct quickly took over.
“He was waiting for us to cross, to pass,” Chapin said. “He started walking to the middle of the bridge. It was quite obvious from there.”
Chapin and Wedderburn described him as a middle-aged man, possibly in his late 40s or early 50s, balding with graying-brown hair and wearing an olive-colored sweatshirt and scarf with blue pants.
Wedderburn ran to a nearby neighborhood, knocked on the door of a home and called the police. Chapin stayed with the man with hopes of talking him down.
“He kept yelling at me, with anger, to go away. He kept repeating, ‘Just go away,’ ” Chapin said. “I kept repeating, ‘Please don’t jump.’ Nothing really specific because I didn’t know anything about him. He kept saying to go away, but I told him I wouldn’t.”
Chapin said he was standing directly underneath the man on the bridge. At one point the man told Chapin that if he owned a gun he wouldn’t need to resort to committing suicide in public.
“He said he was waiting for a truck,” Chapin said. “No trucks came, thankfully, at the beginning when he was very inclined to jump. There’s the netting, there’s the ledge. He actually got into the jumping position. Whenever he did that I would raise my voice a little bit to make sure he’d step back.”
Whatever became the ultimate reason, the man never jumped. Perhaps he didn’t want a teenager to witness a suicide, Chapin thought. Fifteen to 20 minutes after Archer and Wedderburn discovered him, the man climbed down from the bridge. Before police could arrive, the man left the premises.
Police canvassed the area but were unable to find him.
“He had gotten down and walked around the corner,” Wedderburn said. “They searched for him with dogs.”
Since the incident occurred, the whereabouts of the man have remained unknown.
What was going to be a 45-minute run turned into a frightening ordeal that lasted more than an hour. The two boys didn’t complete their run that day and eventually went back to campus.
They’re hopeful the man has been able to seek help since coming close to ending his life.
“Suicide is a permanent solution to a short-term problem,” Wedderburn said.
Chapin’s mother, Julie Chapin, was concerned like a parent naturally would be after her son told her the details of what occurred. But the fact he and his friend had the intention of saving a life reinforced the kind of child she and her husband raised.
“It’s hard for me to visualize it,” she said. “But everyone’s reaction has been, ‘Wow, what a great story.’ But we’re not surprised. He’s just that type of person.”