“August 10, 2008, Saturday afternoon at 1:40 PM. A young woman 300 meters from the south end of the bridge climbed onto the bridge railing. I immediately started my moped, but because I accelerated too quickly, the moped leaked oil and ignited. I had to run to her, but when I was 200 meters away, she jumped into the Yangtze. Her silhouette was visible in the water, at a spot 50 meters away, and I could still hear her yelling for help, until a large wave obscured her from view.”
That’s one entry in the diary of Chen Sah, a man who spends his weekends—ten hours a day, away from his wife and daughter—patrolling a bridge on the Yangtze in his moped, looking for jumpers to save. I heard Mr. Chen’s story while riding in my car, listening to “This American Life.” The bridge is a dingy concrete behemoth four lanes wide, four miles long, plastered with communist slogans exalting workers. Waves of cars and thousands of pedestrians cross the river into Naan-jing, a city of seven million.
Why does he do this? I thought, as I listened to his story. About once a week someone jumps to their death from the railings of this bridge. Why do people do it? “Emotional problems make up 60%. Terminal illness: 20%. Sudden explosive crises: 10%. And domestic violence: 10%.” Mr. Chen decided to do something about it, save whomever he could.
“On July, 25, at 10:30 in the morning, I discovered a woman lying on the bridge railing, on her belly, weeping. I went to her. She wiped her eyes . . . . Her last name is Jiau, and today she’s 45 years old. Because her husband, surname Lee and 51 years old, is violent towards her and mistreats her, she thought killing herself would be better. However, she is silent when she thinks of her 15-year-old son.”
Mr. Chen reminded me of the Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caufield’s dream of standing in that field of rye, catching all the children who wander too close to the cliff and fall. Chen was really doing the Holden Caufield dream, actually patrolling the cliff. It seemed crazy, quixotic, ten hours a day every weekend. And yet it also seemed the most human thing a man could do.
Since 2003, Mr Chen has saved 174 people from suicide, he’s counseled 5,150 on the bridge and 16,000 on the phone. 51,000 people have texted him for help.
Stopped at a light, I sat in my car and seriously considered moving to Naan-jiing so that I could volunteer with Chen Sah. The light turned, traffic surged forward and I decided not to move to China. Surely there was one person on a bridge somewhere right here, in need of me, in need of you, if only we would only listen for their faint cry.