Mekong Delta bridge guards maintain suicide watch

By Diep Phan   February 16, 2021 | 02:55 am PT
It’s not in their job description, but guards frequently save lives by talking people out of committing suicide by jumping off the Can Tho Bridge.

It was around 11 p.m. and there was a motorbike parked on the side of the bridge. Then Hua Nhan Hau saw her.

The young woman was crying her heart out, standing outside the railing and looking down at the fast-flowing river below.

Hau knew he could not afford to show any panic or do anything in haste.

The 58-year-old guard had more than ten years of experience working as a guard on the Can Tho Bridge that connects Can Tho City and Vinh Long Province.

He approached her slowly and picked up a conversation. "It's quite late already. What are you still doing out here?"

The woman cried even louder. Hau put aside his patrol duty, sat on the ground, and began the "reluctant task" of trying to talk people out of taking the last step, using all the counseling and persuasive powers at his disposal.

His sympathy and calmness had its intended effect. The girl remained sitting on the other side of the barrier, but started talking.

"I live in Ben Tre Province and the man I love studies at the Can Tho University. After I drove all the way here to visit him, he refused to see me. He probably wants to leave me. I don't see any meaning in life anymore," she said.

Reflecting on that situation, Hau said: "I am a bit hot tempered and by initial impulse was to scold her. But I held back my anger and started to ask more questions and gave her advice."

Hua Nhon Hau, a member of Can Tho Bridges guard troop, during a patrol shift on January 14, 2021. Photo by Vnexpress/Diep Phan.

Hua Nhon Hau patrolling the Can Tho Bridge, Can Tho City, on January 14, 2021. Photo by Vnexpress/Diep Phan.

Years of experience in dealing with suicide attempts told him that if the distraught person was still answering him, she/he still lacked the "courage" to take the final leap.

However, he needed to remain calm and gentle to avoid attracting the attention of others. There was still a big risk that the girl might panic, feel embarrassed and jump off the bridge.

Sitting on bridge that runs nearly three km over the Hau River, he listened patiently and empathetically to the girl's love story. His hands and voice were shaking after chatting for more than two hours in the cold weather.

"If he no longer loves you then your suicide will be meaningless since it will not touch him. He will soon have a new lover. Come with me back to the guard booth. I will make you a cup of hot tea and we will continue our conversation there."

The girl accepted his invitation. Hau was still anxious, in the back of his mind, that she would be harboring suicidal thoughts. So he spent his entire shift listening to her confession and giving her advice.

"It was fortunate that she climbed back in. There have been many cases where I sat on the bridge with a person considering suicide for so long that I would be desperate to pee, but couldn’t dare leave their side for fear they would end up jumping."

After his shift ended at 5 a.m. the next day, Hau drove along with the girl to make sure that she completely and safely crossed the Can Tho Bridge before heading back to his home.

This one of dozens of suicide attempts he had managed to prevent so far, Hau said.

The Can Tho Bridge security team consists of 50 people who take turns patrolling and handling issues that crop up including regulating traffic case of accidents and other incidents.

Discouraging people from committing suicide is not part of their official job description, but they do not have the option of doing nothing, of course.

Biting the hand that saves you

While his latest rescue took a lot of time, Hau was not hurt in the process. That happened last year.

He was on his regular night-shift patrol when he saw a man and a woman having a heated argument. The woman climbed over to the other side of the bridge railing and tried to jump, but was pulled back by the man. Hau rushed to help and got hold of her hands and asked pedestrians passing by to call his colleagues for help. As he held the girl's hand, he suffered a sharp, bleeding bite.

"It hurt me really bad, but I didn't dare to let go because she would have jumped immediately," Hau recalled.

His colleagues arrived and helped with directing the traffic and clearing the place of crowds after calling for police assistance. After more than an hour of exhausting efforts trying to keep the girl safe, she was handcuffed by the police and taken straight to the hospital.

Pham Tan Thanh (sitting down) and teammate, pedestrians hold on to woman with family problems attempting suicide at Can Tho Bridge earlier this year. Photo by VnExpress/Tan Thanh.

Pham Tan Thanh (sitting down), his colleagues and passersby hold on to a woman with family problems attempting to jump off the Can Tho Bridge earlier this year. Photo courtesy of Thanh.

Pham Tan Thanh, 42, vice captain of the maintenance and security team of Can Tho Bridge for more than three years, said he has a different approach in dealing with suicide attempts. He rushes to act now, remembering an incident two years ago when he could not stop a man from committing suicide.

Now, when Thanh sees a person sitting on the railing trying to jump off the bridge, the engineer does not hesitate. He rushes over to grab the person’s hands and holds on tightly even as he advises and tries to pull that person back.

"The outcome can be irreversible if I am just one second late," said the Vinh Long native.

In the incident two years ago, a young man agreed to get back. But when Thanh thought he had successfully saved the man and let go of his hands, the man climbed over the railing in a flash and jumped into the river.

"We understand that when they’ve made up their mind, it can’t be helped. If not here, they would have done it elsewhere. If not today, they would do it another day. But, even if we sense that determination, our conscience wouldn't allow us to leave. We have to save them."

He said most people wanting to commit suicide at the bridge have family, love or financial problems. Every year, after a major football tournament, more people come here to commit suicide, so the guards have to remain more alert and work even harder, Thanh said.

"We do this for our conscience without being asked to do it or getting paid for it. Every time we save a life, we also have to go to local police station to write reports and act as witnesses. It might be a bit time consuming, but we don't mind," Thanh said.

Thanh (right) and a teammate taking a break at their watch-post at one of the ends of Can Tho Bridge. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Thanh (right) and a teammate take a break at their guard booth at one end of the Can Tho Bridge. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

As an employee of the old ferry terminal, when the Can Tho Bridge opened to traffic, Huynh Thanh Truc, 45, was transferred here as a guard. Over the past 10 years, he has rescued about 20 people who intended to jump off the bridge.

At times, he would spend his own money to invite the people he’d just saved to have breakfast, drink coffee and then persuade them to give him a relative’s phone number for the person to be picked. He would only return to work once he had handed over the person.

"Once, we saved a sad, pregnant woman whose husband did not care about her coming here. She decided to have the baby. The next day, a family member brought us fruits in gratitude," Truc said.

Having spent nearly half of his life by the Hau river, Truc has many times seen canoes searching for bodies when he looks down from the bridge during his shift.

The guards feel the pain in their hearts when they see family members on both sides of the river bank crying and calling out their children's and grandchildren's names.

"In some extreme cases, during rainy months, many families rent boats to look for their relatives for a whole week. Such scenes make me deeply sad. My colleagues and I don’t want to see such pain."

go to top