High anxiety: Trooper fights fear to save would-be Tappan Zee jumpers

State Police Investigator Joseph Becerra talks, while interviewed State Police Investigator Joseph Becerra talks, while interviewed at the New York State Police Troop K Barracks in Hawthorne, about his work dealing with people attempting suicide by jumping off of the Tappan Zee Bridge. (Oct. 12, 2012) Photo Credit: Xavier Mascareñas

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Trust.

It's the most important thing a rescuer must gain from a suicidal person poised to leap to their death if there's any hope of avoiding tragedy.

So when Armando Chico yelled down to State Police Investigator Joseph Becerra on a windy April afternoon in 2005 that he should join him atop a tower on the Tappan Zee Bridge 450 feet over the Hudson River if he wanted to talk him out of committing suicide, Becerra agreed.

But he did it with a lump in his throat.

Becerra, a 27-year State Police veteran who has coaxed three would-be jumpers from the Tappan Zee, is afraid of heights.

That day, troopers strapped a nervous Becerra into a safety harness before he climbed a ladder to the top of the 300-foot bridge tower. Chico, a convicted sex offender, was distraught because he believed that the criminal justice system had treated him unfairly.

After three hours, Becerra inched his way down from the sky, bringing Chico with him.

"If you gain their trust, let them know that there are people who care about them, you can be successful in talking them down," Becerra said in a recent interview at the State Police barracks in Hawthorne. "As a negotiator, you can never make a promise that you can't keep.

Beccerra has never failed to talk a would-be jumper to safety once he's reached them. There have been times -- too many, he knows -- when he didn't get the call until after the person had plunged to their death.

Numbers are hard to come by, but State Police say easily more than 30 people have killed themselves by jumping from the three-mile bridge in the last decade.

No one knows why the Tappan Zee attracts so many jumpers. More famous spans such as the George Washington and the Brooklyn bridges haven't seen as many suicide attempts, police noted.

"Some people call the Tappan Zee Bridge the Golden Gate Bridge of the East," said Dr. Jeffrey Vernon, a psychiatrist who runs the Harrison Center for Advanced Psychiatric Care in Harrison. "One theory is that the attention that is paid to one suicide attempt there draws others who might be driven to make such an attempt."

The new Tappan Zee, which is in the works, will include fencing designed to thwart jumpers, but State Police know that no amount of security can make any span suicide-proof.

"If someone wants to harm themselves they're going to find a way," said Becerra.

Over the years, the state has taken measures to hinder would-be jumpers on the current Tappan Zee Bridge such as installing cameras and emergency phones. Troopers routinely patrol the span, which is devoid of barrier fencing, looking for possible jumpers. And maintenance crews are told to watch for people who appear distraught.

Nattily dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and tie, with his hair carefully sculpted, Becerra could be mistaken for a Wall Street banker. Born and raised in White Plains, the soft-spoken 48-year-old bachelor relaxes by playing with his two dogs and going fishing. After six years on the job, Becerra was promoted from trooper to investigator. That's when he received crisis-negotiation training required for this type of work.

Most recently, Becerra saved a New Rochelle man who had climbed down onto scaffolding attached to the bridge and threatened to jump. Unbeknownst to Becerra, the man, Thomas Porzio, 55, was being hunted by New Rochelle police for what they described as a vicious assault on his wife a day earlier.

"He made references to having problems with his wife and that he might have hurt her," Becerra said. "I knew whatever was going on, I wasn't going to solve his problems there, so I just focused on convincing him that he still had people who cared about him, who didn't want to see him harm himself."

Negotiators like Becerra usually prefer to be alone with the jumper. They don't call friends or relatives or anyone else for help.

"You don't know if the family member is going to say something that's going to agitate the person further," Becerra said.

Specialized training that includes role-playing prepares Becerra and other crisis negotiators for encounters with suicidal people. Each real-life situation, however, is different.

"You see on TV where the negotiator is the one doing all the talking. That's not how it works," Becerra said. "A good negotiator has to be the listener. You have to show empathy. You have to show compassion. You have to be careful not to say or do anything that inflames the situation ... You want to know what's bothering them, but you also want to get them to people who can give them the medical and psychiatric care they really need to address their problems."

And while the negotiator wants to get close to the would-be jumper, getting too close carries its own risks.

"They could pull you down with them," he said.

Suicide by jumping off a bridge does not reflect any particular set of problems, Vernon noted. Some people -- those with long-term depression -- usually plan their plunges, giving away personal items and writing notes or emails to be read after they die. Others simply snap on a particularly bad day, stop their vehicle on the span and leap to their deaths.

"Of the ones who are saved, the ones suffering from long-term depression are usually upset that they were unsuccessful" in killing themselves, the psychiatrist explained. "The ones who just snap are usually glad they were rescued."

Those who survive typically form a strong bond with the rescuer, Vernon said. After each suicide attempt, the would-be jumper is transported to the Westchester Medical Center's psychiatric unit for evaluation. The three people Becerra saved have asked that he be the one to drive them to the hospital. He always does.

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