Ithaca, N.Y. — Senior Investigator Mike Gray burst out of the stairwell and onto the top floor of the open-air parking garage.
All he saw was a backpack in a corner. He made a quick scan, and then: There they were.
The top of someone’s fingers, barely visible, were curled tightly around the railing.
Gray rushed toward them. He saw the top of a head. And then there was the girl, dangling from a railing about eight stories above the Ithaca street, around 100 feet up in the air.
Gray called to her. “I want to help you,” he said.
The girl spoke. Her words didn’t match what Gray hoped to hear.
“No,” she said, panic in her voice. “Stay away.”
On Tuesday, Police Chief John Barber nominated Investigator Gray and several other officers for officer of the month for their role in the May 28 rescue of a suicidal 17-year-old girl from the Cayuga Street parking garage.
Gray, a 26-year veteran of the force, says that the rescue was a “100% group” success.
“This was a coordinated effort,” Gray said. “I happened to be the first one to get hands on her.”
He points out that Officer Derrick Moore served a crucial role in spotting the girl and effectively communicating the situation. And that he couldn’t have pulled the girl over the railing without the help of Officers Kevin Slattery and Investigator Donnie Barker, who arrived on scene a few minutes after Gray.
But Gray, a trained crisis negotiator, also recognized that his specific training helped him with a key part of the rescue — getting the girl to calm down and think clearly.
Gray referenced his training in mental health from the FBI.
“They teach you what to say and what not to say” in extremely stressful and dangerous situations, Gray said, including “things that would de-escalate a situation.”
As he faced the dizzying drop, Gray faced a dilemma.
If he didn’t reach out far enough, he could let the girl fall. But if he over-extended himself, he could risk his own death.
When Gray first found the 17-year-old hanging onto the railing shortly after 9:47 a.m., she told him to go away.
But what happened next forced him to take action: He saw the girl begin to look down.
“My gut told me, ‘She’s either looking for a landing spot or figuring out her next move’ — I don’t know if my gut was right or not, but I ran while she was looking down,” Gray said.
Gray grabbed her arm. In doing so he extended himself over the railing — “which is stupid, because there was a very high potential she could have dragged me over,” Gray said.
As Gray grabbed her left arm with his right, he realized she was wearing some form of jacket that was tough to grip, he said. He also grabbed her back leg — “stretch yoga pants” similarly lacking a grip.
It’s hard to know how long Investigator Gray held the girl like this.
“It seemed like forever,” he said. “Seconds seem like minutes seem like hours.”
At one point she began twisting her wrist.
“I yelled at her, ‘Stop it!,’” Gray said.
Investigator Donnie Barker and Officer Kevin Slattery arrived on scene. Gray shouted to Barker for help; Barker rushed over and helped grab the girl.
But they weren’t in the clear yet.
“She said, ‘I’m slipping!,’” Gray recalled.
“And I said, ‘No, you’re not!’”
Protecting fellow officers
Slattery and Investigator Barker reached the 7th floor of the parking garage at the same time.
Together, they quickly made their way up to the eighth floor on a final, short staircase. They reached the top to see Gray at the railing’s edge.
Slattery and Barker sprinted to Gray’s side. Barker went to grab the girl.
“I realized: There’s no room for me” to reach the teen, Slattery said. “And then I saw (the officers) on their tip-toes, really starting to go over, and that’s when I grabbed them.”
Slattery said when he first arrived the railing was at his fellow officers’ upper chest. But then as they held more of the girl’s weight, they extended over the edge, and the “rail was more toward their belly button.”
The risk the officers would fall over the edge was real.
“I bear-hugged both of them and hung from them … I wrapped both my arms around their waists, and I remember holding onto their belts so they didn’t go anywhere,” Slattery said.
Gray said Slattery’s decision to grab the officers was “the smartest thing he could do,” since there was no way for him to reach the girl.
“I think I was cognizant of the possibility (of falling over) in the back of my head,” Gray said. “I’ve heard stories nationally where that type of thing has happened, and somewhere along the line I’ve received some training that indicates that that’s a possibility.”
Slattery later said he didn’t realize how much exertion was going into keeping the officers on the ground.
“When I was all done I remember being winded,” he said. “I remember being extremely exhausted.”
It’s about a month later.
Investigator Gray, Officer Derrick Moore, Investigator Barker, Officer Slattery and Chief John Barber head to a local graduation.
The officers knew the girl they had saved was going to be at the event. But they were surprised when she was also announced as a speaker — and surprised further by what she talked about.
“She got up and spoke about her mental health issues and encouraging other people who are distraught to get help,” Gray said. “Then she got up and spoke and she recognized the efforts of the officers in allowing her to be here.”
Officer Slattery said he was thankful for the opportunity to see her improvement.
“I was glad to see she was recovering,” Officer Slattery said. “I was glad she faced it that way and was comfortable discussing it that way.”
Gray said he spent a lot of time thinking about the incident in its aftermath, noting that he has a daughter around the same age as the girl.
“When you get done with what you did, it puts chills through you,” Slattery said.
A change of heart
As Slattery worked to make sure the officers were themselves secured, Gray realized that he and Barker wouldn’t be able to pull her over alone.
They needed the girl’s help.
“I yelled at her that she needed to climb with her feet,” Gray said.
A few minutes earlier, the girl had refused to even talk with the investigator.
But now, slowly, she began putting her feet flat against the wall of the railing, “and started to pull herself up.”
Gray and Barker pulled her the rest of the way over. As the girl’s body began to emerge Slattery let his fellow officers go and also grabbed the girl. The officers then put her on the ground, as their training dictates, to make sure she didn’t make another suicide attempt.
Investigator Gray paused when asked to describe how he felt when the girl’s safety had been secured.
“It’s really kind of indescribable other than that it was a tremendous sense of relief,” he said.
An ambulance arrived. Sitting together in the back, Gray spoke to the girl about what had happened.
“She did say it was her intent to end her life,” Gray said.
“I think realizing that people were reaching out and trying to help her, she eventually changed her mind.”