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Officers dive into lake to foil suicide attempt

Published Oct. 9, 2005

(ran NS, S editions of B)

What began as a routine morning police check of Freedom Lake Park turned into a rescue mission to save an elderly man who had driven his car into the lake.

Pinellas Park police officials said the 85-year-old man was trying to kill himself.

Officer Fred Jenkins was midway through his daily check when he noticed a white two-door 1984 Pontiac sinking in the lake. The driver, Emil Westerman, was inside with the windows rolled up and the doors locked.

Jenkins rushed to the edge of the lake and radioed for assistance. "I could see the water coming up over the car. It was starting to sink very rapidly," he said.

Officers John Milligan and Geoffrey Moody responded to Jenkins' dispatch, removed their equipment and dived into the 7-foot-deep water.

"Officer Moody was banging on the driver's side, telling him: "Open the door for me,' " Jenkins said.

The officers managed to open the driver's side door and pull Westerman out. The officers swam to shore with Westerman afloat between them.

Westerman, who was admitted to Northside Hospital in St. Petersburg, lives about a block from the park. He was in stable condition Tuesday.

Jenkins said Westerman told him that he had no relatives and that he had left notes in his home. Police said Westerman appeared to be depressed.

"He was going to do away with himself. He said, "I don't want to live anymore,' " Jenkins said Tuesday, as he watched Pinellas Park fire officials pull the car from the bottom of the lake. "If we hadn't come along and did what we did, the man would have died."

Local senior experts say depression among people 65 and older can often lead to suicide.

"This is the population where spouses die, friends die off, seniors become physically unable to maintain active lives in their communities _ that's a lot of loss to contend with," said Iris Lee, director of counseling and family support for Gulfcoast Jewish Family and Mental Health Services. "It can easily trigger depression."

According to the National Center for Health Statistics in Washington, D.C., older people, who make up 26 percent of the U.S. population, commit 39 percent of the officially recognized suicides. Their rate, 20.1 suicides per 100,000 people, is 65 percent higher than that of the nation as a whole.

Suicides among seniors in Florida is even higher. In 1990, 590 people over age 65 killed themselves, or about 25 per 100,000.

Agencies across the state and nation are working to erase the statistics as well as stories like Westerman's.

"It doesn't need to happen. There are so many sources of support," said Valerie O'Berry of Neighborly Senior Services. "The key is to get involved again."

Neighborly Senior Services has 27 centers throughout the county. The agency also offers transportation to anyone interested in participating in social programs that range from group dining to volunteer activities.

To get help

For information about Neighborly Senior Services, call 573-9444. For information about Gulfcoast Jewish Family and Mental Health Services, call 538-7460.