The man who called the newsroom sounded almost chipper as he announced his plans.

“I’m going to jump off the South Bridge,” he told me. “I thought you’d want to know.”

“Why are you going to do that?” I asked him.

“Because I miss my girlfriend,” he said. “And I want to be with her.”

An Auburn police officer hauls Christopher Messier, 27, of Lewiston into a rescue boat in the middle of the Androscoggin River, between Lewiston and Auburn, on Sunday afternoon. Lewiston police said when they tried to arrest Messier for failure to appear in court on a domestic violence charge, he fled and jumped into the canal by Simard-Payne Memorial Park. Police said he then ran along the riverbank before jumping into the water and swimming away. Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham

Turns out the girlfriend had jumped into the river a day earlier. She had flopped around in the quick-moving water a few minutes before rescuers in a boat had fished her out and shipped her to a psychiatric facility.

And with all that in mind, my caller hung up the phone, walked down to South Bridge and, true to his word, jumped into the river. Like his beloved before him, the fellow was spooned out of the water after a few minutes and shipped to the hospital for examination.

I wrote a brief about the weird affair, shipped it on over to the copy desk and went on with my day. No biggie. Nothing to write home about.

Before my first year on the police beat was done, I’d seen at least half a dozen people jump into the Androscoggin River.

In every one of those cases, it was a short affair. Mr. or Mrs. Greg Louganis would hit the water and then very quickly realize that water is wet, cold and not necessarily a great means of solving whatever personal issues they were having that day.

I began to see river jumpers as almost a quaint fad, a harmless little something to add excitement to everyone’s day.

And then Lucas Murphy happened.

Lucas was a 16-year-old Lewiston boy who, on an icy-cold evening Nov. 19, 1996, had ripped off his shirt and coat and jumped off Longley Bridge. Witnesses reported that Lucas had been screaming that he was on fire when he jumped. They also reported that they could hear him hollering for help a full two minutes after he hit the water.

After that, just silence as the dark and frigid river took Lucas for good. It didn’t give him up until spring, when his body was found floating near a dam miles away in Brunswick.

Following that sad affair, the notion of people leaping into the Androscoggin River didn’t seem like such an innocuous act. It was, however, a frequent one.

Not long after the death of Lucas Murphy, a woman walked out onto the train trestle over Great Falls and jumped over the side. She presumably meant to land in the water below, but instead, she landed mostly on jagged rocks. The fall broke and battered her body in a variety of ghastly ways, but she remained vividly aware of how horribly awry her jump had gone.

It seemed like every other day during that period, someone was flinging himself or herself off a bridge or threatening to do so. I began to wonder if our iconic river was singing sweet Siren songs to those with trouble in their lives.

You say the wife left you? That’s sad, my friend. Give your grief to the currents.

Hopelessly in debt and no end in sight? Take that final step, my good man — there are no collection agents down in those depths.

Absolutely wrecked by addiction to booze and dope? Take heart, old sot. The river will make you clean and deliver you whole in some faraway place.

Maybe it was the water that enticed them. Maybe it was the dizzying distance between bridge and river that intoxicated them to momentary madness — maybe it’s just something about the drop.

Police Detective Tom Slivinski, at the time an Auburn patrol officer, recalled a 15-year-old girl who stood on a Longley Bridge railing in dainty ballerina shoes while he and a Lewiston cop tried to coax her down. Several times, she nearly slipped and fell, Slivinski said, but after nearly an hour, he was able to grab her when the Lewiston officer provided a distraction.

She was taken for psychiatric care but released after a few hours.

“Three days later, she jumped out a window,” Slivinski said, “and broke a leg.”

Then there were those for whom the river was not meant as a method of suicide but as a distinct cry for help that none could ignore. A bridge jump — or even just the threat of one — is a public spectacle, after all, and one that will draw immense crowds of onlookers and emergency crews of all kinds.

Police will come. Firefighters, too. Paramedics will park their ambulances nearby while a short distance away, divers will ease their boats into the water. A man or woman standing in a high place and threatening to jump is a galvanizing event, just the thing if you’ve been suffering but no one seems to hear your cries for relief.

For others still, the river is a last-ditch path to freedom if police happen to be on their heels.

I once saw a man jump into the Androscoggin on a frigid February night to evade police who were trying to arrest him. He dove in on the Lewiston side and swam across to Auburn, moving through rushing water that couldn’t have been more than 35 degrees. He made it over to Auburn, saw that more cops awaited him there, turned around and swam back to Lewiston.

After police arrested the shivering fellow, a cop told me he was so impressed by the man’s attempt at freedom, he almost wanted to let him go. Almost.

Others lose their nerve once they encounter the darkness, the depths and the powerful currents of the unforgiving river.

Somewhere around 1999, a man who had been released from prison that very day came to Lewiston and robbed a Lincoln Street convenience store. He attempted to make his getaway by running to the river and jumping in, but after a few seconds in that churning water, he must have thought: “Ya know? Prison wasn’t that bad, really. Gotta be better than drowning and getting eaten by eels.”

So he turned back to the riverbanks, was scooped up by the po po and back to the slammer he went.

Maybe the river really does sing enticing songs to those who suffer. Maybe it whispers promises of sweet relief if one can just take that final step off the greasy bridge railing. If so, I say ignore it, my friends, at all costs. What the river offers isn’t relief at all, but oblivion.

As Lucas Murphy could attest, sometimes those rescue boats aren’t near enough to help and once the river has you in its embrace, all that awaits is cold, black doom.

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer whose Siren is the mean streets. Email him at [email protected]