City firefighter a hero in documentary on Golden Gate Bridge
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Twenty-four people committed suicide in 2004 by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. If not for Pittsburgh firefighter Richard Waters, there would have been 25.
While visiting the towering landmark, Mr. Waters, now 37, pulled a woman from the ledge before she could jump to her death. Now the local hero can watch himself in action in a documentary that comes to Pittsburgh this week.
"The Bridge," which opens tomorrow at the Harris Theater, Downtown, chronicles a year on the Golden Gate Bridge. Director and producer Eric Steel focused on the two dozen people who leaped to their deaths in 2004. Mr. Waters, who is featured in the film, was the only passerby that year to stop and intervene.
While moviegoers will see Mr. Waters perform his brave act, most will probably not appreciate his knack for making spontaneous decisions.
The local hero initially did not see himself as a firefighter. But he decided to take the exam and ended up joining the fire bureau in 1997. Later, after talking about visiting his brother in San Francisco, he made another unplanned choice. Finalizing his plans at 11 p.m. one evening early in 2004, he took a 6:30 a.m. flight to San Francisco the next day.
On the last day of his trip, he stopped by the Golden Gate, camera in hand, to snap a few picturesque shots. Before his visit, Mr. Waters had often spoken with his brother about the bridge, talking about its notoriously high number of suicides. As he stood before the panorama of land, sea, and sky, he took photos of the railing, wondering what goes through peoples' minds before they jump.
Then he noticed a girl beginning to climb over the railing.
"She did it so casually, I was almost surprised," he said.
Figuring she would jump as quickly as she had climbed, his initial response was to document the scene on his digital camera.
"I felt like a National Geographic photographer with a lion charging at me," Mr. Waters said.
But when she hesitated on the edge, he put his camera down and called out to her. He asked her questions -- her name, what she had done that day -- to elicit a response. The only thing he heard in return was a low mumble in a foreign language.
"At that exact moment, you don't even think about what to do," he said. "You just do whatever comes naturally."
He grabbed the back collar of her jacket and hoisted her to safety. When she fought him, he pinned her to the ground and called 911 from his cell phone.
Then came his biggest shock. As he waited for the response team, still sitting on a kicking and screaming girl, he watched people brush past him.
"I couldn't believe it," he said. "Nobody stopped once to ask what was going on."
The police soon arrived at the scene, and Mr. Waters picked up his camera and walked away. He had only been on the bridge about 10 minutes.
Until Mr. Steel's documentary, Mr. Waters had only told a few close friends about his experience. But his brave act did not go unrecognized; his fellow firefighters took note. In December, Mr. Waters, of Engine/Truck Company 4, Uptown, was given the Liberty Mutual Firemark Award for Heroism.
Now that thousands of moviegoers have watched his heroic moments -- "The Bridge" has played in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago -- Mr. Waters still knows very little about the woman he saved. Mr. Steel has told him that she was 30 years old and, according to her doctor, a brilliant woman who spoke seven languages. Mr. Waters has never again spoken with her or her family.
Though he says watching the event is still emotional, he realizes the documentary's purpose for bringing awareness of mental illness.
"I don't know if that girl was going to jump," he said, "but I couldn't just stand there and take the chance."
First Published January 11, 2007 12:00 am