Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A former life insurance salesman has "sold life" to scores of people trying to end it all at Australia's most notorious suicide spot.

In nearly 50 years Don Ritchie, 84, has saved at least 160 people at The Gap, a rocky cliff at the entrance to Sydney Harbour - and he is still on suicide watch.

Lost souls who stood atop the cliff, wondering whether to jump, say their salvation was a soft voice breaking the sound of the wind and the waves, asking: "Why don't you come and have a cup of tea?"

And when they turned to the stranger, they say his smile made them want to live.

Mr Ritchie, who lives across the street from The Gap, is widely regarded as a guardian angel who has shepherded countless people away from the edge.

What some consider grim, Mr Ritchie considers a gift.

"You can't just sit there and watch them," he said, perched on his beloved green leather chair, from which he keeps a watchful eye on the cliff outside.

"You gotta try and save them. It's pretty simple."

Since the 1800s, Australians have flocked to The Gap to end their lives, with little more than a 3ft fence separating them from the edge. Local officials say around one person a week commits suicide there and in January, Woollahra Council applied for nearly £1.2 million government funding to build a higher fence and tighten security.

In the meantime, Mr Ritchie keeps up his voluntary watch. The council recently named him and his wife of 58 years, Moya, 2010's Citizens of the Year.