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Shortly before 4 a.m. Tuesday, June 19, 2012, USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Fuel) 1st Class (AW/SW) David Lawrence, Air Department’s V4 Division maintenance leading petty officer, was driving to Naval Air Station North Island (NASNI) for a pre-work workout when he made a fateful decision to help a stranger.
Lawrence was driving across the Coronado Bay Bridge when he noticed the car in front of him pull over and stop near the bridge’s apex.
“I saw he was an older guy and he didn’t have his hazard [lights] on, so I didn’t want him to get hit – and he was in a black Fiat and it was dark out,” Lawrence said. “Most people going over the bridge at that time won’t be paying attention; they’re just trying to wake up.”
Lawrence said he thought he would be helping with a flat tire or offering a ride to the Highway Patrol station on the other side of the bridge when he pulled over in front of the black Fiat and turned on his hazard lights. This decision to help was reflex for Lawrence, stemming from his belief that good deeds produce good rewards.
When I volunteer at children’s hospitals or for fundraisers, I believe “somebody is returning the favors,” Lawrence said. “My health is good. My family’s health is good. [So I take] any opportunity I get to help somebody.”
Yet Lawrence had no idea just how much help he would give that morning. As he asked if there was a flat tire or car trouble, Lawrence was 10 to 15 feet from the man when he saw him jump out to the bridge’s ledge.
“I stopped right where I was at,” Lawrence said. “I put my hands to where he could see them. I didn’t want to make any hasty moves.”
Still worried that traffic was unable to see the man’s car, Lawrence stood in the middle lane to wave cars around while he continued to speak to the man.
“I didn’t talk about why he was up there,” Lawrence said. “I told him about what I did in the military and the places I’ve been [to]. I talked about my family. I asked him if he wanted to go get coffee or breakfast at Denny’s, if he wanted a jacket or a drink of water – just everything.”
Though caught up in a perilous situation most people would find beyond their capacity to manage, Lawrence had attended the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) program while deployed onboard Vinson. The information, training, and intervention skills he learned from the two-day suicide prevention workshop greatly helped him that morning, beginning with a simple acronym.
“Just A.C.T. – Ask, Care, Treat,” Lawrence explained. “I didn’t get to the ‘Treat’ part – the FBI negotiators and [police officers] got that. But I asked the guy [and] I had an opportunity to leave. They asked me if I wanted to go. I told the cops that I was the first one talking to him, you know. I don’t know if this guy got abandoned by someone and so I didn’t want him to see me get in my car and leave. So, I stayed there the whole time.”
Lawrence said he also stayed, talking to the man without pause, because he felt accountable. “I didn’t want him to jump,” Lawrence explained. “I felt like I was responsible, well, now I was responsible for this guy’s life.”
That knowledge and the knowledge that what he said could literally result in this man’s choice to stay or leap, was forefront in Lawrence’s mind and weighed heavily upon him.
“I didn’t ask him what he did or about his family because I didn’t know why he was up there,” Lawrence said. “He might have been up there for that certain reason. I didn’t want him to think about it. I just told him all the positive stuff that I’d done. I told him that I’d been down in the dumps [and] everyone goes through hard times, but tomorrow’s another day and the sun is going to rise regardless.”
For the next 15 to 20 minutes, Lawrence did everything he could to manage the situation, including directing traffic around the two parked cars, flagging passing traffic and asking them to call for assistance, and, most importantly, keeping the man from jumping from the edge of the bridge.
“A couple of times he was leaning forward like he was about to jump,” Lawrence said. “I yelled at him: ‘Don’t do it, man! Look at me! Pay attention to me! Listen to what I’m saying! It’s not worth it! We can get through this! Let’s go get breakfast – my treat! I’ll buy you a cup of coffee! I know it’s cold – do you want a jacket?’ Just anything to get him to stand back up. [And] he’d stand back up. He’d look at me.”
Though “it seemed like an eternity”, Lawrence said California Highway Patrol and San Diego Police Officers started arriving after fighting their way through traffic.
“My thought was, “Please don’t jump,” Lawrence said. “ [I thought], ‘How am I going to keep this guy from jumping?’”
Which Lawrence said was more than difficult.
“He didn’t say a single word to me,” Lawrence said. “He just looked at me. The entire time he didn’t say anything.”
After approximately 20 minutes, two police officers relieved Lawrence and started talking to the man on the ledge. Lawrence was taken to a tactical police vehicle where FBI agents questioned him. After obtaining his personal information, Lawrence said the agents “thanked me and shook my hand” before letting him know the man wanted to speak to him.
“He was just standing there with a jacket on, looked at me, and said, ‘Thanks,’” Lawrence said. “I said, ‘Hey, man, you made the right choice. I’m glad to see you’re on this side of the ledge. Have a good day and be safe.’”
Lawrence, portraying his humility and unwavering belief in humanity, said he doesn’t believe he did anything extraordinary, or, even, anything beyond what anyone else would have done.
“I’d do it again today, if I had to,” Lawrence said. “People are saying I’m a hero and thanking me, but I’d like to think if I didn’t do it, somebody would have stopped and [helped].”
Lawrence said he would like to know how the man is doing. He left with very few details about the man’s life or why he’d been on the verge of ending it.
One piece of information relayed to him by a police officer will stay with the Carl Vinson Sailor foreverthough. “It was his sixtieth birthday,” said Lawrence, shaking his head. He didn’t have to say it, but Lawrence knew. His compassion made it possible for one man to see 61.