The Suicide Catcher
In the rapidly modernizing, constantly churning city of Nanjing, China, there is a legendary bridge, four miles long, where day after day, week after week, the desperate and melancholy and tormented come to end their lives. Most end up in the Yangtze River, 130 feet below. But some do not meet their maker. They meet someone else. They are pulled back from the brink—sometimes violently—by an odd and unlikely angel
The bridge rose up and away from the city’s northwest quadrant, spanning the great Yangtze river. And yet, from the on-ramp where the taxi let me off that Saturday morning, it seemed more like a figment of the imagination, a ghostly ironwork extrusion vanishing in the monsoon murk, stretching to some otherworld. It was disorienting to look at, that latticed half-bridge leaving off in midair, like some sort of Surrealist painting. It gave off a foreboding aura, too, untethered and floating, and yet it couldn’t have been more earthbound—and massive. Later I’d find out it was made from 500,000 tons of cement and 1 million tons of steel. Four miles long, with four lanes of car traffic on the upper deck and twin railroad tracks on the lower, it transferred thousands of people and goods to and from the city every day. But now the clouds clamped down, and a sharp scent of sulfur and putrid fish wafted on a dank puff of air. Rain slithered from the sky. There, before my eyes, the bridge shimmered and disappeared, as if it had never been visible in the first place.
Its formal name was the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge, and it served one other purpose for the masses: At least once a week, someone jumped to his or her death here, but a total was hard to come by, in part because the Chinese authorities refused to count those who missed the river, the ones who’d leapt and had the misfortune of landing in the trees along the riverbank, or on the concrete apron beneath the bridge, or who were found impressed in the earth like mud angels, two feet from rushing water. Perhaps such strict bookkeeping came in response to the fact that China already posts the highest sheer numbers, about 200,000 “reported” suicide cases a year, constituting a fifth of all the world’s suicides. For a long time, the Communist government simply ignored the problem, hoping it would go away, or maybe thinking in the most Darwinian terms of suicide as its own method of population control. One recent case highlighted just how the Chinese bureaucracy tended to deal with prevention. In the southern city of Guangzhou, workers had been ordered to smear butter over a steel bridge popular with jumpers, in order to make it too slippery to climb. “We tried employing guards at both ends,” said a government official, “and we put up special fences and notices asking people not to commit suicide here. None of it worked—and so now we have put butter over the bridge, and it has worked very well.”