People often say they were at the right place at the right time. But sometimes being there just is not enough. Every so often there is a barely perceptible voice that people hear, urging them to take the next step — the step that leads to a happy ending.
Such was the case for Connor Roberson in the wee hours of the morning on Jan. 10. Roberson, an MUSC Meducare EMT, works from 7 p.m. until 7 in the morning, part of the dedicated team that transports patients by ambulance and helicopter, 24/ 7.
On this particular shift, Roberson was on the sixth level of the President Street garage preparing the helipad for an imminent arrival. In approximately 12 minutes, a patient was due in from Beaufort. There was little time to spare. It was his night to secure the helipad, ensuring nothing could prevent the helicopter from landing safely. Just a few days earlier, the roof had been blanketed in salt and sand so helicopters and cars could navigate icy conditions. It was around 3:30 a.m., and out of the corner of his eye, Roberson caught a glimpse of a person midway across the roof — a guy in a hoodie, sitting on the sidewalk, by the wall. It was a young man, he decided, probably in his early 20s. The guy was just hanging out, earphones in, listening to his iPod, seemingly in his own little world.
Roberson wasn’t overly concerned. Still, he knew he’d better get him off the roof; the helicopters kick up whatever is around when they land, and he didn’t want him to get hit by flying debris.
So he shouted, “You’re going to want to head downstairs. You don’t want to be up here when the helicopter lands.”
The young man replied with an OK.
But he didn’t move. Roberson wasn’t sure why. Perhaps he didn’t understand that a helicopter was about to land feet away.
That’s when something told him to walk over and check on him.
“When you see someone alone — well, you don’t know why someone is sitting near a helipad all by himself in the middle of the night.”
When Roberson got to about 30 feet from the hooded figure, like a jackrabbit, the young man hopped up on the ledge of the wall. In seconds, he precariously balanced himself on top of the two-inch metal guardrail. Six stories high. A harrowing sight.
Not always what it seems
In the span of 30 seconds, everything had changed for Roberson.
“I froze in my steps. I realized I could be experiencing the last moments of someone’s life.”
“'Whoa, man, what are you doing?' I asked him. He just looked at me and waved."
Roberson knew something bad was going on. It was clear the young man’s intention was to end his life.
“I was not going to let that happen on my shift.”
“What’s the deal?” he asked the guy calmly. “Why are you on the guardrail?”
“I just don’t want to live anymore,” the young man admitted. “I can’t do another day.”
“Let’s sit down and talk about this,” Roberson pleaded. “There’s nothing going on that we can’t get through.”
The young man crouched down, still balancing on the narrow guardrail.
“My name is Connor. I’m an EMT. What’s your name?
“I’m Ben.” (Not his real name.)
“How old are you, Ben?”
Roberson wasn’t expecting it to be a kid. That hit him hard.
“Hey man; why are you up here? Why are you trying to do this?”
Ben explained he was having family problems. He also wasn’t fitting in at school and having other troubles as well. Nothing seemed to be going his way. “These were things that many of us went through in middle or high school. General feelings of not belonging,” Roberson said. “But he was thinking of taking his life over them.”
Ben continued to tell Roberson what was bothering him.
“I told him, ‘There is so much more. You’ve only got a few more years left at school. You haven’t given it enough time.’ But I couldn’t convince him that he was missing out on stuff. He was convinced he’d gotten as far as he could go and couldn’t handle being around for another day.”
Roberson had keyed up the microphone on his hip, so the dispatcher on the other end would realize something was happening on the helipad. The gravity of the situation weighed heavily on Roberson.
“It’s a lot to deal with. You’re analyzing, processing and listening. You’re trying to figure out the best way you can help this person, and at the same time, not put yourself in danger.”
By this time, he was only about 10 feet away from Ben.
“My main goal is to get him away from the guardrail — by any means possible. If I have to tackle him and pull him away from the wall, that’s what I have to do.”
But he would not let Roberson any closer. Every time he would advance, Ben would get stand back up on the guardrail.
“I say to him, ‘I’m here all night. I’m here until 7 a.m. I will talk to you as long as it takes, but you have to come down and sit on the sidewalk with me.’ I’m thinking, it’s not just about him jumping; it could be the wind up there, or ice, or something that accidentally causes him to fall.”
A change of plans
The dispatcher heard part of the conversation and understood how perilous things were.
At this point, the helicopter was on final approach. Maybe three minutes away — too close for comfort, Roberson concluded. Things with Ben were not yet secured enough for the chopper to land.
He told Ben that he needed to talk to someone on the other end of the microphone to make sure the helicopter didn’t land there.
“I’m trying to do 15 things at one time.
I’m trying to work my way closer to him. I’m trying to talk to him. I’m trying to talk to dispatch. I’m trying to talk to the helicopter. The dispatcher is trying to talk to Public Safety. Public Safety is trying to talk to me. There was a lot going on. It’s hectic at this point.”
“I got on the radio and waved off Meducare 1 from its approach. They would need to land at the alternative location. The EC 135 is no small helicopter and strong winds come off that thing. I worried winds could knock him off that guardrail. That was not a risk I was willing to take.”
Ben started to come down.
By this time, MUSC Public Safety had five officers on the roof, advancing from different points of entry. An ambulance was stationed below. As officers began to approach, Ben immediately jumped back up on the guardrail. Roberson assured them that “he had this,” and they pulled back.
Any time someone would try to get close, Ben would hop back up. Off and on, off and on.
By now it’s past 5 o’clock in the morning, and below-freezing temperatures were unforgiving.
“I was frozen,” Roberson said. “My hands were blue. I’m pretty sure my lips were blue. I was shivering. I know he was freezing. He was only in a hoodie and sweat pants.”
“I tried to instill in him a hope that there was a different way that he could go about life. I told him the issues that have brought him to this point are issues we can work together to fix. ‘I promise you,’” he assured Ben, “‘we can work this out — we can get you the help you need if we can come to an understanding.’”
Ben said, “OK Let’s just sit here and talk.”
But as he teetered back and forth above the ledge, Roberson said, “If we’re going to talk, you have to get down off that guardrail.”
Ben slowly climbed down. The two sat together. And talked.
The situation led to a heavy response from first responders. City of Charleston police and fire departments and Charleston County EMS were now there, too.
“Our dispatcher had pulled out all the stops. It means a lot to me to know how well they coordinated and how much they care about the employees. You don’t know what any person is going to do. They are already doing things that are out of the scope of what is a reasonable action.”
But Ben never exhibited any aggressive behavior toward Roberson.
“He was just sad, down on his luck and depressed. He just didn’t think he would have a very favorable outcome in this world. He wasn’t mad at the world.”
Roberson learned that Ben loves to run. He described him as a healthy, active, fit kid. Ben told Roberson that he actually had ridden his bike from his house to MUSC. “He just kept riding. He’d been riding for over an hour and ended up here. He picked this spot because it had a beautiful view. I can’t argue with him — it was beautiful, especially when the sun was coming up. It was a place where he found some peace,” Roberson said emotionally.
He just kept talking, trying his best to connect with the 15-year-old. At only 24 himself, Roberson showed wisdom and compassion beyond his years.
“I have no formal negotiator training. I just have an innate ability to talk to people and find out more about them and connect with them. We talked about things that we loved.”
Ironically, they bonded over a shared dislike of school. “I told him that I didn’t like school either,” he said with a laugh. “I told him the greatest days of my life were when I got an early in and an early out.”
Roberson told Ben that while he attended the University of South Carolina for one semester, he had taken a first responders class. He loved it and realized he wanted to do that.
He’d found his path and explained to Ben that life offers many paths. “You don’t have to strive for the things other people want. You can live an alternative lifestyle and be just as successful. Look at me, I didn’t finish college, but I have a stable job, and I love what I do. I told him there are other ways to do things – he is almost 16 and so close to making some serious gains in his life.”
For a good hour, Ben shared his feelings with a man who only two hours before had been a complete stranger, but now, a trusted confidante.
CPD was also up on the roof by this time, and Ben became self-conscious, realizing how many people were there to help him. He was moved by the fact that people who didn’t even know him could care so much about him.
“Look,” Roberson said, knowing this had to come to an end. “You love running, right? Why don’t we go over to the Wellness Center and crank out a mile on the track?” Ben liked that idea. Finally, the police negotiator and a PS officer made their way up, and Ben was calm enough to accept them.
Roberson asked the officers if he could stay with Ben.
“We hooked our arms through each other’s and walked to the ambulance together and headed off to the emergency room."
It was 6:30 in the morning, and the crisis was averted. A young life saved by someone who listened to the small voice.
“I felt like I was there for a reason. I’m usually focused on other things, but the first time I looked at him, there was just something, I felt like I had to go talk to him. Something didn't seem right. Something in my head just kept telling me I needed to go talk to him.”
Roberson is hopeful that Ben is doing well. He wonders about him frequently. He knows Ben’s parents were relived he was safe and very happy to see him.
Even with all he did that fateful night, Roberson balks when someone calls him a hero or coworkers tell him they couldn’t have done what he did. His supervisor, Michael Ries, was fully looped in as the morning’s events unfolded. The Meducare coordinator praised Roberson’s composure, quick thinking and good judgment in saving the teenager from the most dire of situations.
“This situation is a shining example of how well members of our team adapt when the pressure is on. Connor Roberson’s actions in this situation were beyond thoughtful, disciplined and empathetic, they were at the very core of the concept surrounding the term heroic.”
He just hopes it was a turning point in Ben’s life. He’s grateful he was there to help.
“You can go to school for this kind of work, but you don’t learn anything until you hit the streets. No textbook can prepare you for telling someone their loved one is gone or taking care of someone at the end of their life. We never interact with someone who is having a good day. So whenever you have a chance to help somebody or to instill some kind of a positive difference in their lives, it’s the most important thing you can do in your job. That experience is second to none. You can’t put a price on helping somebody come down off a precipice of ending his life before it really began.”