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‘That guy would have lost his life’

UPDATED: Fri., Sept. 30, 2011, 5:16 p.m.

ROTC Cadet Sgt. Christopher Smith was running across the Kardong Bridge early Friday morning, September 30, 2011, when he came to the assistance of a person trying to commit suicide.  Smith jumped down and rescued the man who was in the water and hanging onto the abutment (pictured behind Smith). (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Christopher Smith, a Gonzaga University junior from Tampa, Fla., found himself dangling from a ledge over the Spokane River before daybreak Friday in a daring rescue of a suicidal man who had jumped into the river minutes earlier.

Smith, 19, shinnied about 12 feet down from a viewing platform on the Centennial Trail’s Kardong Bridge to reach the man, who was partly submerged and holding onto the bridge’s concrete pier.

He pulled out the man and tried to keep him warm until firefighters arrived. As they waited, they talked about the man’s reasons for wanting to die.

The man told Smith he was out of work and recently divorced.

“I don’t know if anybody else could climb down there so I guess it’s lucky I was here,” said Smith, 19.

Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said the man was not injured.

The rescue came when Smith, an ROTC student, was setting out on a warm up run at 5:30 a.m. with two other ROTC students, Trevor Block of Whitworth University and Thomas Veley of Gonzaga.

Another jogger told them someone was in the river, so they searched the darkened water and then heard someone murmuring below the bridge.

“There was a guy hanging onto that cement slab,” Smith said, pointing to the spot where the rescue took place.

The man was hanging onto the edge of the concrete pier which has a platform around the main column about three feet above the water.

Smith said he has always been good at climbing trees, and his ROTC training keeps him fit.

Rather than going into the water either by jumping from the bridge or swimming from shore, he decided to climb down from the wooden viewing platform atop the pier.

Going into the water, he said, “could have put both of us at risk.”

He said he wasn’t afraid of climbing down from the wooden viewing platform, but he moved slowly to make sure there were no other threats.

“I tried to play it cautious,” Smith said.

Once on the concrete pier, he grabbed the man’s arms and pulled him up to the safety of the concrete ledge at river level.

Smith used his ROTC training to assess his condition, much as a soldier would a casualty in the field, he said.

The man’s speech was slow, but he was responding. He said he had water in his lungs. He had been in the water only for about 15 minutes before Smith spotted him.

Block and Veley threw down their jackets and a nearby resident went to get a blanket. He massaged the man’s arms to help him warm up.

“I sat there and talked to him while we waited for the fire department and police to show up,” Smith said.

He described the man as being in his middle 40s and apparently a Spokane resident.

“You could tell he was extremely cold,” Smith said.

Block said, “That guy would have lost his life if it hadn’t been for Chris. It was awesome.”

Mary Joan Hahn, GU director of community and public relations, said word of the rescue was met with a sense of pride on campus. She said the rescue is a credit to the caliber of the school’s students.

“We are very proud of the presence of mind of all of the students involved,” Hahn said, adding that the university is grateful for their action.