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Monday, May 14, 2012

Australians Mourn Don Ritchie - the Angel of The Gap

Australians are mourning the death of the man known as the "Angel of The Gap", who stopped hundreds of people from leaping to their deaths at Sydney's most notorious suicide spot.
The Gap at Watson's Bay and Sydney Harbour  Photo: Alamy

From The Telegraph
By Jonathan Pearlman, in Sydney

Don Ritchie, 85, who lived across the road from The Gap – a treacherous coastal cliff in Sydney's east - would stop people in distress and say: "Is there something I could do to help you?" Hundreds of strangers subsequently stopped for his "kind word and a smile" and then changed their minds about jumping to the rocks below. Some had laid their shoes, wallets and a note on the coastal rocks and were poised to leap before being gently coaxed back from the edge. Officially, Mr Ritchie saved 160 people over the past 50-odd years, though his family believe the number is closer to 500.

"He could read some people needed help," said his sister, Sue Ritchie Bereny.

"He would say not to underestimate the power of a kind word and a smile...

It was often a matter of a kind word and he would bring people back to our place for a cup of tea and breakfast.. That was often needed to turn people around." Mr Ritchie, who was born and raised not far from The Gap, served in the Royal Australian Navy during World War II and subsequently worked as a life insurance salesman. His death - of natural causes - led to tributes from across the country.

Malcolm Turnbull, MP, whose constituency covers The Gap, said Mr Ritchie was "one of our greatest Australians" "A true hero," he said. "His work lives on forever not just in the lives of those he saved but in his heroism and example of public service."

Mr Ritchie won numerous community awards and a Medal of the Order of Australia and was last year named Australian local hero of the year. He received champagne bottles, Christmas cards and letters from those he saved, sometimes a decade or two later.

"I'm 85 and even at my age it has broadened my horizons with all the wonderful people I have met," he said.

"I've had welcome feedback from people who have come back from the edge.

It's really rewarding knowing that the action I took changed the course of their lives and got them back on track... It's important for troubled people to know that there are complete strangers out there, like myself, who are willing and able to help them get through that dark time and to come out on the other side."

But Mr Ritchie sadly admitted that he was not always successful at bringing back people from the edge. He recalled seeing several people go over, including one instance where he spoke to a quiet young man who "just kept looking straight ahead".

"I was talking to him for about half an hour thinking I was making headway," he told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2009. "I said 'why don't you come over for a cup of tea, or a beer, if you'd like one?' He said 'no' and stepped straight off the side his hat blew up and I caught it in my hand.'' 

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