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Safety net saves one woman considering suicide

The call came on a Friday evening. A woman, panicked and alone, was threatening to kill herself. Rita Dell, a news clerk, answered it _ this call that was so unlike any others that come into a newsroom. We are not crisis counselors. We are reporters. And yet, for the moment, that distinction became meaningless. You do what you have to do.

Rita nervously questioned the woman about her life, trying to keep her on the line while the office manager, Kitty Bennett, dialed 911. Rita got the woman to talk about herself, but she could not persuade her to give her name or address.

Ten minutes passed and finally the woman mentioned where she had worked before being fired. Rita typed out the information and handed it to Kitty, who relayed it to the 911 dispatcher. In turn, 911 contacted the company and found out the woman's name. The dispatcher promised to send a police officer to her apartment.

Time dragged on, and we became anxious that the police were having trouble finding her. Rita spoke softly into the receiver and assured the woman that there were ways out of her troubles other than the act so final and terrible she was contemplating. Rita learned that the woman was a single mother, which made the loss of her job even more significant. She also learned that the woman was especially upset because she had not been paid some promised severance pay.

Threads of this woman's life unraveled onto the computer screen. Soon, others in the newsroom joined the effort to get her help.

The woman had mentioned a caseworker with the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) who was familiar with her. Rita typed in her name. I called HRS and got an answering machine. I then called the Tallahassee abuse hot line, thinking that a dispatcher might help.

Some of the other leads we got, names of friends or family, led to dead ends. The HRS dispatcher in Tallahassee couldn't find a caseworker in Tampa by the name I had given.

Rita had been on the phone with the woman for about 45 minutes. We were beginning to wonder if the safety net that is supposed to exist for people like this was hung right.

Susan Clary, an editorial assistant, reached the woman's parents and told them their daughter was on the phone with us, sounding distraught. They said they would head right over to her apartment.

Just as soon as Susan hung up, their daughter told Rita someone was at her door. She put down the phone. A moment later, the phone went dead.

We checked back with 911. Police had arrived.

I later learned that the Hillsborough County Crisis Center hot line _ one of two 24-hour crisis hot lines in the county _ gets 200 calls like this a month.

I also learned that in most cases, the people are reaching out for help and won't act on their threats to harm themselves. If the hot line operators sense an immediate danger, they call police.

Police officers are no more psychologists than news clerks in these matters, but they have more experience and they are trained to look for troubling signs.

Tampa Police Officer Margaret Bushell, one of three officers who responded to our 911 call, said the officers did a lot of what our clerk did. Just talk. They got her to talk about "positive things," said Officer Bushell, and plans for the next day. Not until the officers were sure that the woman was not serious about suicide did they leave.

This time, it appeared, the net was up and secure.

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