Australian ‘angel’ saves 160 lives at suicide spot


Australian ‘angel’ saves 160 lives at suicide spot

Mon, 14 Jun 2010


Click photo to enlarge

In this photo taken May 25, 2010, Don Ritchie looks out his
window at his home in Sydney, Australia.  Photo by AP.

In those bleak moments when the lost souls stood atop the
cliff, wondering whether to jump, the sound of the wind and the waves was
broken by a soft voice. “Why don’t you come and have a cup of tea?”
the stranger would ask. And when they turned to him, his smile was often their

For almost 50 years, Don Ritchie has lived across the street from
Australia’s most notorious suicide spot, a rocky cliff at the entrance to
Sydney Harbour called The Gap. And in that time, the man widely regarded as a
guardian angel has shepherded countless people away from the edge.

What some consider grim, Ritchie considers a gift. How wonderful, the former
life insurance salesman says, to save so many. How wonderful to sell them life.

“You can’t just sit there and watch them,” says Ritchie, now 84,
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

Since the 1800s, Australians have flocked to The Gap to end their lives,
with little more than a 3-foot (1 meter) fence separating them from the edge.
Local officials say about one person a week commits suicide there, and in
January, the Woollahra Council applied for 2.1 million Australian dollars ($1.7
million) in federal funding to build a higher fence and overhaul security.

In the meantime, Ritchie keeps up his voluntary watch. The council recently
named Ritchie and Moya, his wife of 58 years, 2010’s Citizens of the Year.

He’s saved 160 people, according to the official tally, but that’s only an
estimate. Ritchie doesn’t keep count. He just knows he’s watched far more walk
away from the edge than go over it.

Dianne Gaddin likes to believe Ritchie was at her daughter’s side before she
jumped in 2005. Though he can’t 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.”

Something about Ritchie exudes a feeling of calm. His voice has a soothing
raspiness to it, and his pale blue eyes are gentle. Though he stands tall at
just over 6’2 (an inch shorter, he notes with a grin, than he used to be), he
hardly seems imposing.

Each morning, he climbs out of bed, pads over to the bedroom window of his
modest, two-story home, and scans the cliff. If he spots anyone standing alone
too close to the precipice, he hurries to their side.

Some he speaks with are fighting medical problems, others suffering mental
illness. Sometimes, the ones who jump leave behind reminders of themselves on
the edge – notes, wallets, shoes. Ritchie once rushed over to help a man on
crutches. 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 Moya called the police. He would help rescue crews haul up the
bodies of those who couldn’t be saved. And he would invite the rescuers back to
his house afterward for a comforting drink.

It all nearly cost him his life once. A chilling picture captured decades
ago by a local news photographer shows Ritchie struggling with a woman, inches from
the edge. The woman is seen trying to launch herself over the side – with
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 never tries to counsel,
advise or pry. He just gives them a warm smile, asks if they’d like to talk and
invites them back to his house for tea. Sometimes, they join him.

“I’m offering them an alternative, really,” Ritchie says. “I
always act in a friendly manner. I smile.”




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