A PORT Elizabeth truck driverhas told of his desperate efforts to prevent a father-of-two from jumping to his death off the infamous Van Stadens bridge outside the city yesterday.
Freight Solutions truck driver Harry Vermaak drew on his own "very dark period" to talk the man out of leaping off the "Bridge of Death".
He said while he did not know what the man's reasons were for wanting to kill himself, he could relate because he had gone through a rough patch himself after losing his business years ago.
Vermaak was driving on the N2 towards Plettenberg Bay at about 2am when he spotted a vehicle parked in the emergency lane on the opposite side of the bridge.
He slowed down and hooted, but got no response. He drove on and kept checking his rearview mirror for a response, but still saw nothing.
Not happy with the situation, the 54-year-old Windvogel father, who was due to deliver a load of soil to a mushroom farm in Plettenberg Bay, turned around at the next off-ramp and headed back.
As he approached the car, he hooted again, and still got no response. He assumed the car had been abandoned.
"All of a sudden, I saw a head move inside the car. I got out and approached the vehicle and a very pale man got out of the car.
"He looked like something out of a movie. I actually had to think if he was human because he just looked so strange," Vermaak said.
"So much went through my mind. I thought he might have a hostage in the car with him and did not know if he maybe had a gun, so I took a step back.
"He then looked right at me and said it was his time to go. It was then that I realised this man was going to jump.
"I was scared as I was alone on the bridge at night in the pitch dark, not knowing what this man wanted to do."
Vermaak, trying to distract the man, struck up a conversation with him.
"I thought that if I could keep him talking, I would be able to convince him not to jump," Vermaak said as he relived the incident yesterday while standing on the bridge.
"We spoke about lots of different things and then I realised he had two children. I told him what were they going to think and what example would this set if their father took the easy way out. I kept on telling him that children need their father.
"He then handed me a letter and told me to give it to his family. At that point, I realised my time was running out and he was determined to jump."
Then the man's phone rang and he handed it to Vermaak.
"I answered it and it was his daughter. I told her that her father was standing on the bridge and wanted to jump.
"She started crying and put his wife on the phone, but the man then started walking. I told him that his family needed him and that nothing could be that bad. All he needed was help," Vermaak said.
"When I managed to get close enough to him, I held his arm firmly and continued to talk to him while I phoned the police. The next thing a police van was behind my truck."
Vermaak offered to take the man, who has not been identified, to the police station.
"I held on to him until he got into my truck. It is really something you do not want to experience. It sent shivers down my spine," he said.
"It is scary knowing that all that stood between this man and death was me. Afterwards, I was very emotional and had to hold back the tears."
At the Thornhill police station, Vermaak contacted the man's family – their phone number was in the letter – to come to the station.
"I sat with him until 4am when his family arrived," he said. "They were extremely grateful but obviously also very shaken up about the ordeal.
"The strange thing is that I actually left home before I was meant to and if I had been a few minutes later, he would have jumped.
"His wife did tell me that they were going to take him to the hospital."
Vermaak said he could relate to the man as he, too, had gone through a very dark period a few years ago.
"I used to run my own company and lost it years ago. It was a rough time but I knew that I had to be there for my children," he said.
"I am not sure what this man's reasons were, but I can relate to a degree."
Police spokeswoman Warrant Officer Marianette Olivier said the Thornhill police station had CCTV cameras and monitored the movements on the bridge.
"During the night it is difficult for the officers monitoring the cameras as they [the cameras] are not infra-red," she said.
"We released the man into his wife's custody and no criminal case was opened as [attempted] suicide is not a crime."
The suicide attempt comes just a day after Port Alfred resident Wayne Wewege, 28, jumped to his death from the bridge at about 6am on Tuesday.
Wewege was the 85th jumper since the bridge opened in November 1971.
The DA's roads and public works spokesman, Pine Pienaar, said he would table a motion in the provincial legislature for a technical investigation to prevent further suicides on the bridge.