Millions watched on television as a woman, dressed all in black, stared at her feet dangling over the side of the 21-story City National Bank Building in Sherman Oaks. As news helicopters hovered overhead broadcasting live video across the region, police and fire rushed to her aid – eager to save a suicidal woman from a grave mistake.
“We tried to gain her trust,” said Engineer James Martin with the Los Angeles Fire Department, who was connected to a safety harness as he carefully approached the woman on May 11, 2017. “She seemed like she was kind of agitated. We wanted to gain her trust so we could move closer.”
Martin was on one side, his longtime colleague Engineer Kameron Carlis on the other, as an LAPD officer tried to convince the woman not to jump. Martin and Carlis are both part of a specialized task force in Urban Search and Rescue. They’ve trained while dangling off the side of skyscrapers many times, but that afternoon was not a drill.
“My biggest fear was if we were to grab her and she slipped out of our hand,” Martin said. The 31-year veteran says he didn’t even notice the helicopters overhead or the crowd gathering on the intersection down below. He was too busy watching his fellow rescuer and the woman in peril.
The woman told the first responders to leave her alone, so Martin and Carlis pretended to back away by taking up slack in their ropes. In reality, they never took a step back. Instead, as two LAPD officers distracted her, they inched forward and waited for the right opportunity.
It was one of those unspeakable moments, where the brotherhood between firefighters comes into play. Since they couldn’t talk without giving away their plans and possibly frightening the woman, the two firefighters signaled their strategy with eye contact and body language.
“We didn’t even have to talk about it,” Martin said. The firefighters have worked together for nearly a decade, often spending 24 hours shifts together. “We just knew what the other person was going to based do on how long we’ve worked together and how close we are.”
Once the two men were within five feet of the woman, she turned to face Martin. Carlis saw his opportunity and rushed forward, wrapping the stranger in a bear hug while pulling her back off the ledge and safely onto the roof of the building.
While the first responders saved a life that day, Martin doesn’t think of his actions as anything special.
“To me, it was just another day,” he said.
In 2017, Martin and Carlis received a Special Commendation from the Los Angeles Fire Department Foundation for their actions. In the program, the Foundation noted that “copycat” suicides are often prompted by publicity. With millions watching their actions on the roof that day, Martin and Carlis may have saved more lives than just the woman on the ledge.
By Kate Cagle
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