WARNING: This story is about suicide. If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide talk with someone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Live Chat online, TEXT 741741, or call 1?800?273-TALK (8255).
?The sounds of his desperate screams, screeching with regret as he fell to his self-inflicted death were so visceral they still haunt me??
A man jumped from the 26th floor of the high-rise building across the street from my apartment. I heard the whole thing. I did not see it, but I heard it. The sound of his desperate screams ? screeching with regret as he fell to his death ? were so visceral they still haunt me weeks later.
It was a pleasant spring afternoon. My partner and I were enjoying a peaceful dinner on our quaint patio. We lived on the elevated first floor of a multi-unit courtyard building in Chicago. We talked about life and dined on pasta and salad as the soundscape of our neighborhood echoed through the courtyard. The humming roar of airplanes overhead, the whirring sound of cars driving by, the hissing brakes and mumbling announcements at the bus stop, sparrows chirping in the trees, clinking dog leashes, and the occasional distant sound of the siren from an emergency vehicle. These familiar and perpetual sounds, the sound of silence in a big city, would soon wane to the worst sound I ever heard.
We had just finished dinner. For the first time, we opened all of the windows of our apartment to allow the gentle breeze to pass through. My partner sat on the couch while I walked to the kitchen to put the dishes in the sink. As I walked back into the living room it happened. For two, long, sustained seconds a man?s voice let out a blood-curdling scream followed by a shorter scream that was interrupted by a loud smacking thud. The sound echoed so loudly it ruptured my soul. The sound shattered the rare tranquility of the day. Somehow, I knew exactly what had happened. My partner asked, ?Did someone get hit by a car?? I take a moment to measure my response.
?No,? I tell her. ?People don?t? make that sound when they get hit by a car.? Obviously, I had heard people scream before. In fear, in pain, in shock, but I had never heard someone scream like this. It was the sound of a human being in horror.
?Part of me wants to forget the man?s voice, another part wants to always remember.?
I?ve had difficulty trying to describe the sound, even to myself. Part of me wants to forget the man?s voice, another part wants to always remember. The scream was almost unreal, yet the most real sound imaginable. The scream was more of a short series of two successive screams. The first scream stopped me in my tracks. It was loud and piercing. The second scream was louder and ten times more horrified than the first. To me, they sounded like desperate pleas from a man who had suddenly realized the finality of his decision. He knew there would be no escape. I had never witnessed a suicide, but when I heard the sound I knew immediately that someone had jumped from the building.
Seconds after it happened I was still standing in the middle of my living room. Although I was certain about what had happened, my mind briefly considered the other possibilities. Maybe she?s right. Was someone hit by a car? No. When a car hits someone it happens fast. You don?t see it coming and the scream doesn?t last that long. It also doesn?t sound like that. Did someone fall from the third floor of my building? I don?t think so. The level of the horror of the scream was not proportional to a 30-foot fall. After a moment I finally walked toward the balcony to investigate. I braced myself for what I would see. I knew someone had jumped or had fallen. I suspected it was from the high-rise. I knew it would be in plain view from my balcony. As I reached for the balcony door, I hesitated.
?I knew someone had jumped or had fallen. I suspected it was from the high-rise.?
People who know me know that in an emergency situation I am often the first person to spring into action. Almost always I am the first to offer help while others hesitate. But this time as my hand reached for the balcony door I paused. I stood there for a long moment. It was uncharacteristic for me to hesitate in this way in this kind of situation. In an emergency, I am never deterred by the potential for the sight of carnage, blood, broken bones, etc., but this time things were different. I wasn?t simply a former boy scout that happened upon an accident. I understood that this would be one of the most awful personal experiences of my life. One that began less than 20 seconds before. It would be a memory that would scar. The screams this man let out told me that the aftermath of what had just happened may be something I did not want to see. Nonetheless, I reluctantly opened the door and stepped out onto the balcony.
When I stepped outside I saw a woman standing across the street from the building clutching a small white dog. She was shouting, ?Call 9?1?1. He jumped. He jumped. Call an ambulance!? An older man, possibly a landscaper or maintenance man, scurried past her presumably to get help. I scanned the ground for the body but didn?t see anything. The body was there but I couldn?t see it. From my vantage point, the body was behind a rack of bicycles a few feet away from the woman. The body was was just beyond my sight. I could see everything except the body hidden behind the bicycles. I didn?t move from that spot for the rest of the ordeal. I looked up at the building where he would have fallen from. I saw what looked like a broken window screen hanging out of a center window near the top floor nearly 28 stories up. A man in a black jacket suddenly walked up and took control of the situation. I was too far to hear him, but he said something to the woman, looked up at the building, walked over to the body, shouted at it, then appeared to check for a pulse. I was already on the phone with a dispatcher relaying the location of the incident. The man in the black jacket then went to his car, took out a blanket and placed it over the body. He then walked over and stood next to the woman at the corner. I watched as a crowd began to gather. We all waited for emergency personnel to arrive.
Some would crane their necks to gawk and continue on their way. Others walked by as if nothing had happened. The experience had me so shaken that the nonchalance of passersby took me aback. Eventually, the police and the fire department arrived. The authorities cleared the area and cordoned off the entire block with red tape. The rest was protocol.
?The fall would have taken about 4 seconds? [he] must not have made a sound until he was more than halfway down?
The sound of that man?s screams haunted me for weeks. I didn?t know who to talk to about it because I didn?t want to bring people?s spirits down with such a horrific tale. I mentioned the incident to my mother, a very matter of fact woman who is sometimes accused of being cold. I told my mom about the distinctly horrifying sound this man made in the last moments of his life. She said (almost with a chuckle), ?Of course. Many people have told me about that sound. That?s the sound people make half-way down when they realize they?ve made a mistake.? She may be right. The fall would have taken about four seconds. Because the sound I heard lasted less than two seconds the man must not have made a sound until he was more than halfway down. My mother made an effort to console me, reminding me that these things happen, there?s nothing anyone can do or could have done about it, and that with time everything would be okay. She?s probably right about that too, but everything is not fine right now.
When I think of the sound that man made it reminds me of the night terrors I get sometimes; panic attacks that hit me in the middle of the night causing me to me literally jump out of bed. When I have these terrors my mind thinks that I am dying. I wonder if I am as terrified in my terrors as he was in his last few moments of life. I wonder if it?s trivial to compare my panic attack to a person facing inescapable death. The only thing I know is that I hope to never hear that sound ever again.
I couldn?t sleep for days. For weeks I couldn?t walk through my courtyard without thinking of that horrifying sound. Months later I still look up at the building every time I leave my apartment. I look right at that 26th-floor window where the screen was hanging out. I can?t imagine how I would feel if I had seen his body. We don?t have dinner on the balcony anymore. The bikes aren?t always there to cover the spot where he landed. I wonder out loud whether we should move away to a place where we don?t have to be faced with a daily reminder of the horrible thing we heard happen. Every time we leave the house we have to walk past that scene. It is a constant factor in our lives.
My feelings for the man who took his life still fluctuate from compassion to anger, to pity, to disdain and even indifference. When people take their lives there is a lot of discussion about the sin of suicide and the effect of the loss on the person?s immediate family, but sometimes these acts indelibly affect other people too. Strangers like me. I know nothing about the man who jumped. I wonder if he felt alone like I do sometimes when he decided to take his life. I wonder what was happening in his life at the critical moment of decision. I have never attempted or contemplated suicide and I wonder if I could ever fully empathize with someone who has.
For better or for worse we were with him in his last moment, except he didn?t know we were there. At this moment I feel like he forced himself on us and we?re still working through our emotions about it. I wonder if a year from now I?ll still be in a place where think more about what he did to us than what he did to himself. I don?t know how my feelings will settle over time, but I am sure I will never forget the sad and horrific sound of the man who jumped.
If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide talk with someone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Online Chat, or TEXT 741841, or call 1?800?273-TALK (8255).
P.S. There is an excellent story about a different suicide incident from the Chicago Sun-Times entitled: ?Life on a Ledge? about a woman who jumped from a building at a busy commercial center in Chicago and the people who were affected by the incident on that day.