Click image to see more photos. (Photo courtesy maryannerussell.com)
On March 11 2005, Kevin Berthia wanted to take his life. He had climbed over the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge and was prepared to take a fatal jump into the San Francisco Bay when he heard a voice calling out to him from above.
It wasn’t the voice of a spiritual presence, but rather that of California Highway Patrol (CHP) Officer Kevin Briggs. The two talked for 60 life-changing minutes before Berthia decided to climb back up the bridge and give life another chance.
Eight years later, the pair reunited as part of an emotional ceremony honoring Briggs and other members of the CHP whose job is to verbally persuade suicidal men and women from jumping off that bridge.
“It was phenomenal,” Berthia, 30, told Yahoo News about his reunion with Briggs at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention public service ceremony.
“I didn’t know what I was going to feel, or how I was going to react,” he said. “But when I first saw him, he walked up me and I just shook his hand. It felt like I had known this man my whole life. The nerves weren’t there. It was just two old friends being reunited.”
In the eight years since their first meeting, Berthia has dramatically turned his life around. He still resides in the Bay Area, home to his darkest of memories, but he has now built a new life for himself, with a successful marriage and two children. He says the time Briggs spent just listening to him forged a connection that helped put him on a path of mental recovery.
“That’s what I tell people,” Briggs told Yahoo News when asked about that fateful discussion with Berthia back in 2005. “You have to seek some help. [And then] you’re getting better. And you can have a life now.”
Over the years, it didn’t seem likely the two men would ever see each other in person again. But in December 2012, Briggs took part in a Yahoo documentary video that chronicled his work on the suicide prevention beat. The story centered on Berthia’s incident while retaining his anonymity. But the footage included an emotionally striking photo of Berthia with his back to the camera and head hung low against the bridge while Briggs attempted to console him.
Click image to see more photos. (John Storey/San Francisco Chronicle)
The outpouring of positive responses to the video provided a catalyst for the reunion.
“It’s actually taken off past what I thought it would ever do,” Briggs said of the video. “I tried to read all the comments. I’ve been contacted to get my life rights for a movie and several police departments have called asking me to speak about what we do here. It’s all been very humbling, to be honest.”
After an initial meeting between Briggs and Berthia’s mother, the two men and their families met privately in a small room before the ceremony began.
“I wanted to meet him again,” Briggs said, acknowledging that it was “very unusual” for him to have contact with any of the hundreds of men and women he’s talked down from the bridge over the years. “I just said, ‘It’s great to see you.’ He said, ‘My Mom is your No. 1 fan.’ It was really neat.”
Things truly came full circle when the two men took the stage and Berthia introduced Briggs to the audience.
“People understood and could respect our connection,” Berthia said. “It was more than just a CHP officer and a man who was trying to commit suicide.”
Much of the attention was understandably given to Berthia and his courage in agreeing to speak publicly about his personal experience. But after his introduction, it was Briggs who found himself overcome with emotion and needing to lean on the young man whose life he had helped save.
“I didn’t realize how I was going to feel on the stage when I got up there,” Briggs said. “I wanted Kevin to stay up on there on the stage with me the whole time.”
Briggs added, “He said that I literally saved his life. I said that he did it himself. He had the courage. It’s his call. It’s his choosing. People were just coming up to us with tears in their eyes. One of the psychiatrists even hugged me. And that’s when it just hit me.”
After the awards ceremony, Briggs and Berthia said they made plans to stay in touch. In fact, Berthia and his family plan to attend a Christmas party with Briggs later this year.
“Now that I have his number, I don’t see us never not being friends,” Berthia said. “We are of such a different age but it never feels like that. I’ve shared things with Officer Briggs in those 60 minutes that no one else in the world knows. It’s a special bond there.”