SFFD veteran talks about failed rescue try

Firefighter speaks to one of suicide victim’s sisters in emotional telephone call

Moving quietly across a Nob Hill rooftop to come behind a man that he felt certain was ready to jump, San Francisco Fire Department Lt. Victor Wyrsch was completely confident he could save the distraught man’s life.

Wyrsch, a 17-year veteran of The City’s Fire Department, was specially trained for rescues and was proud of the fact that he had prevented four previous suicide attempts by doing what he was about to do now — literally grab the man by surprise.

“I thought, ‘I got a perfect shot at this,’” Wyrsch said.

With San Francisco Fire Department Chief Joanne Hayes-White by his side, Wyrsch talked publicly for the first time since Oct. 12, when he attempted to rescue Nick Torrico, 26, who ultimately fell to his death. During his interview with The Examiner, the firefighter seemed bewildered by the media firestorm that has questioned his judgment in the incident as well as the public criticism bestowed on the Fire Department for not informing the Seattle man’s family about the rooftop struggle that preceded the fatal fall.

Torrico was standing on the side of the four-story building’s roof, unstable terra cotta tile beneath his feet, according to Wyrsch. Police on the street were trying to talk him into coming safely back down the stairs.

“I saw the look on his face, I’ve seen that look before,” said Wyrsch, who said he also heard one of his colleagues from the department — on the roof of the next building — insisting, “You don't want to jump.”

Wyrsch said he straddled the parapet wall behind Torrico and locked him momentarily in a bear hug.

“I didn’t wait because there was no question that time was of the essence,” Wyrsch said. “But I was moving slowly, I didn’t come up and lunge at him, or grab at him.”

Torrico swore at him and fought the rescue attempt, Wyrsch said.

“He took my hands and was ripping them off,” Wyrsch said, enlisting Hayes-White to help show his and Torrico's movements. “He was scooting toward the ledge. I couldn’t believe it. This guy was fighting to get over the ledge.”

Torrico broke the firefighter’s hands away from his chest, leaving Wyrsch to try to hold him just under the determined man’s arms. Torrico then hooked his legs under the edge of the roof, and using his leg strength began to pry himself down, away from Wyrsch, who was now left grasping his sleeves.

“His clothes are ripping and I’m hanging on as hard as I could,” Wyrsch said, adding that at this point, he realized that his own life was in danger. “I never let go, it just came out of my hands. I never let go,” Wyrsch said, shaking his head. “I held on to everything I could, for as long as I could, and it [sleeves] ripped out of my hands, just like he did.”

The entire rescue attempt lasted less than three minutes before Torrico fell to his death.

Although Wyrsch said he was devastated by his inability to save Torrico, he said he’s been equally tormented by criticisms in the aftermath of the failed rescue attempt.

“I’m not ashamed of what I did,” Wyrsch said. “I’m ashamed of how this whole thing has been portrayed.”

This last weekend he said he had a tear-filled phone conversation with one of Torrico’s sisters, and offered to fly up to Seattle to talk to the young man’s family.

“I have nothing to hide, there wasn’t a cover-up,” Wyrsch said, acknowledging, “That might have been the impression because the whole story wasn’t given to her [Torrico’s sister] right off the bat.”

Hayes-White said no disciplinary actions would be taken, adding that she trusted Wyrsch’s training, experience and expertise.

“I’m not going to question his judgment,” she said.

Wyrsch said he’s not ready to go back to work and has been provided with counseling services through the department. The night of the incident, he tried to go back to work, but eventually was overwhelmed with emotion. His brother was called to pick him up.

“I was afraid to be alone. I’m not married, I don’t have any kids. The Fire Department’s my life, they’re my family,” Wyrsch said.

Hayes-White defends lieutenant, department over ‘judgment call’

The San Francisco Fire Department has no written protocols for dealing with people who may be attempting suicide, instead leaving each individual situation up to the firefighters involved, according to San Francisco Fire Department Chief Joanne Hayes-White.

“To have a written procedure for these types of calls would be impractical to a certain extent because of the variables of each incident,” Hayes-White said. “Obviously you want to have your experienced people in these situations who have the expertise and training to make those judgment calls.”

Hayes-White defended the decision of one of the department’s firefighters, Lt. Victor Wyrsch, a 17-year-veteran, to go up alone on the fire escape of a Nob Hill building to try to save a 26-year-old man precariously standing near the edge of the roof. Wyrsch, who had taken off his jacket to be more agile, confused public safety officials on the ground, who watched as the two men struggled before the would-be jumper fell.

“It was a risky decision, but I supported his decision,” Hayes-White said.

The fire chief also responded to criticism that said her department should have called the man’s family to inform them of the details of the failed rescue attempt.

“Typically we don’t get back to the family, unless there’s a family member on the scene,” said Hayes-White, who said usually the hospital attempts to reach family members in the event of major injury and the medical examiner is responsible for making contact in the event of a death.

beslinger@exaiminer.comBay Area NewsLocal

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