Sun, Jul 25, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Good Samaritan patrols China's suicide bridge

SELF-APPOINTED VOLUNTEER Every Saturday and Sunday someone goes to Nanjing's Yangtze River Bridge to die. Chen Si has stopped 40 of them from jumping

AFP , NANJING, CHINA

Chen Si, wearing a well-worn baseball cap and large black sunglasses to protect himself from the scorching summer sun, looks out for suicide jumpers on Nanjing's Yangtze River Bridge last Sunday. Chen arrives at the bridge every weekend at 8am and stays until sunset.

PHOTO: AFP

Since Chen Si started patrolling for suicide jumpers on Nanjing's Yangtze River Bridge some 10 months ago, he has seen three people willfully leap to their death.

"I saw one young woman whose body was curled up like a baby's and she was holding her head in her arms as she jumped. I grieved for her for quite a long time," Chen said quietly.

Donning a well-worn baseball cap and large black sunglasses to protect himself from the scorching summer temperatures that can hit 50?C on the bridge, the self-appointed volunteer arrives every weekend at 8am.

He stays until sunset and if he's lucky no one will try to take their lives, but that is almost never the case.

"Women are easier to deal with," said Chen, his eye scanning the bridge's expansive 4,589m that cross China's mightiest river.

"You can talk to them and try and get them to cry out their pain. The men, I usually tackle them because they seldom listen and they can be very strong," he said, adding that once one determined male almost took him over the edge.

Although no one in this river-port city refers to it as the "suicide bridge," the name would be apt. Every Saturday and Sunday in this bustling eastern metropolis of six million, three hours by train from Shanghai, somebody comes here to die.

The bridge was completed in 1968 and was celebrated as a feat of Chinese engineering when it won a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest highway and railway bridge. Today it has more notoriety for being a sure-fire place to kill oneself.

With a drop of 100m to the river below, the nine-second fall from the top will shatter human bones, while the cold yellow waters of the Yangtze are sure to do the rest.

For Chen, the bridge's length means it is impossible to safeguard both sides, so if someone is preparing to go over the chest-high fence on the north end there is nothing the stocky and leather-tanned 37-year-old can do.

Fortunately, most approach from the south, and among the din of traffic exhaust fumes, are then met by a yellow flag and an accompanying billboard which pleas with visitors and the suicidal alike to give life one more chance.

It reads: "Maybe you feel tired, maybe you think this is the end of the world, or maybe you have been wronged -- but life comes only once, so please give yourself one more chance because tomorrow the sun will bring something new."

During his time as the bridge's Good Samaritan, Chen has stopped 40 people from jumping, although he recognizes he cannot get to everyone.

"I've only got a pair of hands, but if I can save one life then that's one life," Chen said.

He says he does what he does simply because he feels compelled to help, drawn to the bridge after noticing a growing number of suicides in the local media.

"Now, almost 24 hours a day, I get telephone calls from people all over the country, telling me that they want to die and asking for help," he said.

At the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge over 1,000 people in total, or an average of 27 people a year, are estimated to have intentionally plunged to their deaths.

In China, home to a fifth of the world's population, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The country has never imbued suicide with the same sinful opprobrium seen in the West, but instead often embraced it as a way of preserving honor and proving moral purity.

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