Don’t look down: training with New York Police skyscraper rescuers

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NEW YORK // Police Sgt John Flynn did not flinch as he started his descent from the top of the Brooklyn Bridge, briskly walking down a narrow suspension cable with only a safety harness between him and a 27-storey drop into the glinting East River.

“It becomes like second nature to you,” he said of the dizzying height. “Three storeys is no different from 30 storeys.”

Blending into the Manhattan skyline is just another day at the office for Sgt Flynn and his fellow members of an elite unit specialising in dangerous, often high-rise rescues. Training exercises like a recent climb up the bridge are designed to get team members thinking beyond the risk to their own lives so they can help save someone else’s.

Successful rescues over the years have included window washers dangling 17 storeys on the side of a skyscraper, talking down suicide jumpers on Manhattan Bridge and a young thrill-seeker who used suction cups to climb the glass walls of Trump Tower. They have even saved a paraglider who crashed into the torch of the Statue of Liberty.

“You’re working from the minute you get the call,” said Sgt Flynn, a rope rescue instructor. “You’re thinking about how to best approach the climb, and how to approach the person even before you meet them, how to help them.”

The 400 officers of New York Police Department’s emergency services unit is among the most highly trained in the United States in both rescues and law enforcement, and it is one of the most coveted assignments in the 35,000-strong force. Candidates must have at least five years on patrol and make it through an eight-month training programme followed by rigorous testing. They go on to work as SWAT teams, jump out of helicopters, rappel down skyscrapers and dive into waters in full scuba gear.

“The officers are handling multiple different jobs all in the same tour,” said deputy chief Vincent Giordano, the commanding officer of the unit. “They’re prepared for anything, and they train for anything.”

New York has the second-highest number of skyscrapers in the world, after Hong Kong, with about 325 buildings over 150 metres. While the fire department is also trained to handle high-rise rescues, the NYPD unit is brought in when people are suicidal, mental unstable or simply resisting help.

Most of the officers on the bridge drill had climbed taller structures and gone up the bridge under more stressful circumstances. Sgt Flynn, for instance, helped talk a jumper down from the top in 2013. The man stood at the very edge, and it took hours to get him down.

“It’s very hard,” Sgt Flynn said. “You’ve just convinced this person they should live, and then you’ve got to get them down.”

But they do not save all of those who are intent on taking their own lives, and those cases haunt members of the unit. “You’re just doing your best to try to save someone,” said detective Jose Otero.

Others resist help because they are trying to make a point. That was the case last August, when detective Chris Williams, a member of the unit for 14 years, was about to end his shift for the day and got a call that a protester was using suction cups and ropes to climb from the fifth floor to the 21st floor of Trump Tower.

Climber Stephen Rogata said he just wanted to talk to Donald Trump, then the Republican presidential nominee, and refused any help or efforts to get him to surrender for his own good.

“I explained to him that Trump was not at home,” Mr Williams said. “It’s going to rain, and you don’t want to be on the side of this glass building in the rain.”

While Mr Williams talked, police took out a window above Rogata and officers set up a rigging system. But Rogata refused to clip into the safety line.

Mr Williams decided it was time to take matters into his own hands. “That’s when I grabbed him by his arms and did a long drag and pulled him inside the window,” he said.

The scene was shown on national television, but the officers are used to an audience. During the bridge drill, crowds below gathered to watch, and 911 calls poured in. A local television helicopter circled as officers climbed the sloping suspension cable to the top of the southern stone tower.

Detective Williams dangled on the side of a vertical ladder at the very top, helping others ascend.

“It’s all about trusting the equipment, and your partner,” he said. “And yeah, I guess, yourself.”

* Associated Press