GENEVA – The efforts of five Geneva police officers to rescue a man from suicide began with a call from a Union Pacific conductor, who called police when he saw someone standing in a small alcove jutting off the railroad trestle that spans the Fox River in Geneva.
It was shortly before 8 p.m. May 4 on the cusp of twilight when four Geneva officers – Matthew Adam, Megan Solner, Quantrell Priest and Hunter Winterstein – and Sgt. George Carbray responded.
Ultimately, they convinced a young man threatening to jump not to do that and to put down two knives and walk to a waiting ambulance.
“It was a sigh of relief – a major sigh of relief,” Adam said. “It was one of those situations where you didn’t know which way it could go.”
Carbray said the man was just 19 years old, younger than both of his children.
“He kept threatening to harm himself,” Carbray said. “So to see someone think that that’s the end of their life at that point – when we all know it’s just the beginning – it’s really tough.”
The incident took about 70 minutes to resolve when the first to respond – Solner and Adam – walked from the Third Street station up on the trestle.
The trestle has train tracks in both directions with metal grids on either side and between so they didn’t have to walk on the rails, Adam said.
Still, they were 45 feet above the river when approaching the man.
“He was directly above the Fox River on that railroad bridge,” Solner said. “There’s a little alcove that juts out maybe four or five feet and he was standing in the alcove and it has wire rails that go around. He was pulling on the rails and had his leg on the first part of the rail on the bottom.”
He did not give police any information or respond to their attempts at conversation, she said.
“We got closer. I saw he was still holding the top rail with his foot on the bottom rail and not responding to us,” Solner said. “The only thing he told me was he had two knives in his pocket.”
Carbray joined the two officers on the trestle. Adam walked on the middle grate while Solner and Carbray were on the north side grate.
Priest and Winterstein went to the east side by Route 25 in case he went that way, “so we could still maintain some control over where he was going,” Carbray said.
The ambulance and a boat from the Geneva Fire Department were located on that side as well.
“The idea was to talk him over eventually to these two officers and the ambulance,” Carbray said.
‘My job is to deal with what’s going on’
Adam said he also was dealing with a fear of heights as he walked over the trestle.
“The entire time, I was trying to maintain eye contact with him. I knew how high up I was and how far a drop,” Adam said. “It was the hardest thing I’ve done. … I knew what I needed to do to push my own fear of heights aside. I’m here doing my job and my job is to deal with what’s going on.”
Adam said he tried to talk to the man as a person rather than as an authority figure.
“I wanted to make it more human … and on a personable level with him. Especially when he brought the knife out and I heard the click of the knife,” Adam said. “Twenty-five feet was maybe the closest we got to him. He only said two things, that he had two knives and if you get closer he would put the knife to his throat.”
The knives were 3 1/2-inch folding knives, Deputy Chief Brian Maduzia said.
As it got dark, the officers had to use their flashlights for their own safety and to see what was going on, but the lights only seemed to agitate him, Adam said.
Solner said the officers kept talking to him, mentioning family.
“We mentioned it was Mother’s Day weekend,” Solner said. “And that seemed to get an emotional reaction out of him. We talked to him for 70 minutes.”
The idea of Mother’s Day actually brought tears to his eyes from what the officers could see, Carbray said.
“Shortly thereafter, he did put the knives down. He lingered a bit, kind of contemplating what he was going to do,” Carbray said. “And the whole time, we kept saying, walk where these two (officers) were. You’re not in trouble. We’re here to help you.”
Solner said they were going through all the possible scenarios in their heads and “that was the best possible outcome.”
“When he did put that knife down, I think all of us said, ‘Thank you,’'’ Solner said. “It was a huge sigh of relief.”
The man walked to where Priest and Winterstein were on the east side and then into the ambulance.
“A lot of people don’t have police exposure. They don’t encounter police often,” Priest said. “Having such a high stressful situation for it to end as positively as it could – obviously he didn’t take his life – it was a good feeling. It’s a sigh of relief that you can be there to help, be that calming presence.”
Winterstein said he was happy the situation resolved the way it did.
“It’s always positive when you don’t have somebody take their life, especially at that age,” Winterstein said.
Mental Health Awareness month
Stephanie Weber, executive director of Suicide Prevention Services, praised the officers for their assistance in preventing the young man’s death.
“Anyone in a crisis like that, you want them to be able to tell you what’s going on in their own head, why they are there,” Weber said. “They’re not criminals. They are just at the end of the pain they can manage.”
May is Mental Health Awareness month and the situation highlights the fact that help is available by calling 800-273-8255.
“Is this young man going to get the help he needs going down the line?” Weber asked. “I don’t know.”
The man could not be transferred to a psychiatric hospital because he became violent to employees at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital and was arrested, Carbray said.
Psychiatric care facilities will not accept a patient who is violent, Carbray said, and the man will get treatment through the court system.