Sydney's 'Angel of The Gap' dies after decades rescuing the suicidal

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Monday, May 14, 2012

Australian man Don Ritchie, dubbed the "Angel of The Gap", has died. He earned his nickname after spending decades talking people out of jumping from The Gap, a cliff famed as a suicide spot beside his house in Watsons Bay, Sydney.

The Gap, where Ritchie spent much of his life rescuing people from suicide.

Credited with at least 160 rescues, though his family suggest the true figure is 500, reports carry conflicting values of Ritchie's age; he was in his mid eighties. He moved to a house beside The Gap in 1964 and lived there the rest of his life, quickly earning his first award after tackling a man who was about to jump. At first he held back would-be jumpers whilst his wife summoned help, but then took to approaching them with his palms out and saying simply "Is there something I could do to help you?"

Ritchie had no relevant formal training, but he said last year to "Never be afraid to speak to those who you feel are in need. Always remember the power of the simple smile, a helping hand, a listening ear and a kind word." According to his daughter, Sue Ritchie Bereny, "that was all that was often needed to turn people around, and he would say not to underestimate the power of a kind word and a smile." He would then "bring people back to our place for a cup of tea and breakfast."

Cquote1.svg I was a salesman for most of my life, and I sold them life Cquote2.svg

—Don Ritchie

Rewarded last year with a Local Hero Award from the National Australia Day Council, Ritchie explained "You couldn't just sit here and watch them. I mean, I couldn't. So I would go out and try and help them." He and his wife Monica were named Citizens of the Year by Woollahra Council in 2010.

Ritchie often clutched at those who jumped in an effort to hold them back. He recently described to The Sydney Morning Herald one nineteen-year-old who was friends with Ritchie's grandchildren; "He said 'no' and stepped straight off the side. His hat blew up and I caught it in my hand." Much of his time was spent watching the cliff for those in distress; Bereny noted his "sensitivity, he could read some people needed help."

Cquote1.svg He said 'no' and stepped straight off the side. His hat blew up and I caught it in my hand. Cquote2.svg

—Don Ritchie

Ritchie's "courage delivered small miracles," said Cr Susan Wynne, Mayor of Woollahra. National Australia Day Council's interim head Tam Johnston has issued a statement saying "Don's story touched the hearts of all Australians and challenged each of us to rethink what it means to be a good neighbour... Don was a true gentleman with a smile that could light up the room." Local politician Malcolm Turnbull, who united with Ritchie and mental health workers to demand suicide prevention measures at The Gap, said "His work lives on forever not just in the lives of those he saved but in his heroism and example of public service."

Diane Gaddin, whose daughter killed herself at The Gap and who works to prevent suicide, called him "a beacon and inspiration to not only us in Australia but the world because it takes courage, bravery, tenacity... he was a gentle, persuasive man who offered them hope with warm, embracing words." She describes the former life insurance salesman, who also served in the navy, as saying "I was a salesman for most of my life, and I sold them life." She said he advised those faced with the suicidal to "Smile. Be friendly and say can I help you in some way."

Ritchie died on Sunday local time at St Vincent's Hospital, with his wife, three daughters, and four grandchildren by his side.


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