BUCKSPORT, Maine – Mike Sealy talked a woman out of jumping off the Penobscot Narrows Bridge last month despite being pretty sure that he would fail.
A paramedic with the Belfast and Bucksport fire departments, Sealy was driving across the bridge at about 8 a.m. on July 23 when he noticed the woman preparing to jump off.
He called 911 and left his pickup truck in traffic on the bridge to help her. As other rescue workers arrived, he listened to her story and from her demeanor became convinced that she would jump.
“I knew we were screwed,” Sealy said Thursday.
“There’s certain people who know how she feels standing outside of the bridge [safety barrier],” he said. “I get that for a reason. I know how she feels.”
That empathy is part of the reason the Bucksport Town Council on Thursday gave commendations to Sealy and another Bucksport firefighter, Capt. Pam Payson, for saving the woman’s life.
Town Manager Susan Lessard said Payson and Seely epitomized the quality of Bucksport’s police and fire departments.
“In truth, if I had to pass out certificates every time these people saved lives, I would be doing this at every meeting because this is what these people do,” Lessard said.
Acting Fire Chief Michael W. Denning praised Sealy and Payson for their professionalism and empathy.
“People just go about their daily business and don’t even know what transpires during the day for emergency responders,” Denning said. “But it didn’t surprise me a bit. That’s just from knowing them.”
Bucksport police and firefighters don’t typically cover the bridge, which runs over the Penobscot River between Prospect in Waldo County and Verona Island in Hancock County. But the Waldo County Sheriff’s Department deputy patrolling the area was too far away to get there in time, said Bucksport police Chief Sean Geaghan.
As it turned out, Payson and Sealy might have been the only people who could have talked the woman down. She appeared to prefer the company of the fire department members to that of police. Every time an officer approached her, “she freaked,” Sealy said.
Sealy warned Geaghan, the first officer to approach, that “she’s not much for law enforcement.”
Geaghan backed off.
Payson joined Sealy several minutes into the approximately 45-minute negotiation. Both used their critical incident training, speaking quietly and positively to her.
The 53-year-old Payson sat on the road while Sealy, who is 51, crouched near the woman as she stood holding the safety railing. Payson said that assuming a submissive position made her less threatening to the woman. Jittery as a cat, the woman stirred whenever anyone came too close.
“I let him take the lead, and then we just kind of played off of each other,” Payson said.
Both used her first name to make the conversation more soothing, and they repeated the common refrain: “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
The work was taxing, Payson said.
“You’re concentrating on that person and that person’s state so much and you want to win the game. You want to pull them in,” Payson said. “And you want them to believe what you’re saying, because in our state, we believe it, but she’s in a place where she doesn’t. So you have to bridge that gap. And it’s a 50-50 chance.”
Sealy and Payson’s hard work ended with the woman stepping away from the edge of the bridge. Then the three hugged. Besides being a gesture that reaffirmed her choice to live, it kept her from suddenly changing her mind, Sealy said.
An ambulance then took her away. Payson and Sealy learned that the woman has a long history of mental illness and conflicts with police.
The firefighters feel for her.
“If all of those things she told us were true, she’s absolutely exhausted mentally and emotionally,” Payson said. “The biggest thing we can do is get her [out of danger] and just give her a bear hug. So she knows that somebody cares.
“That’s what we do. We do this because we care about people.”
To reach a suicide prevention hotline, call 888-568-1112 or 800-273-TALK (8255), or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.