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article imageThe Danube fisherman hauling suicide jumpers to safety

By Nicolas Gaudichet and Katarina Subasic (AFP)     Jan 9, 2017 in World

Putting her backpack down, she climbed over the fence and jumped into the rushing waters of the Danube below: the 16 year-old girl was the 29th attempted suicide to be saved by Renato Grbic, a Belgrade fisherman and restaurant owner.

On that October day "she was lucky that I was nearby with a friend to pull her out," said her rescuer, an athletic 55-year-old.

"I was sitting in my taverna when a neighbour ran in and said someone had jumped from the bridge. So I took my boat... I pulled her out," Grbic recalled in an interview with AFP.

Built in 1946, the Pancevo Bridge has the notorious distinction of being a hotspot for Belgrade's most desperate.

Until 2014, the road and rail bridge was the only crossing point over the River Danube in the Serbian capital and was spared during the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Serbia over its war with ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

The city's central Brankov Bridge is another draw for suicide bids but the Sava River flowing underneath "is a pool" compared with the Danube, said Grbic.

- Up to 20 minutes -

Belgrade fisherman and restaurant owner Renato Grbic stands in front of newspaper articles about his...
Belgrade fisherman and restaurant owner Renato Grbic stands in front of newspaper articles about his suicide rescues, which have won him recognition for bravery
Andrej Isakovic, AFP

The mighty Danube may conjure up romantic visions of epic waterway tours through enchanting European countryside in some of the 10 countries it flows through.

But Europe's second longest river will carry anyone who wants to jump into it for many kilometres (miles), and in winter, its temperature is barely above zero degrees C (32 degrees F).

"Life expectancy" before fatal hypothermia "is 15 to 20 minutes," Grbic said, whose family of river fishermen has lived at their waterside residence for four generations.

On the section where his tavern "At Renato and Goca" is located, the Danube is almost one kilometre (0.6 miles) wide. In the winter mist, it is hard to make out even the other side of the bank.

Some victims die of cardiac arrest when jumping or hitting the water some 20 metres (66 feet) down, such as a 73-year old man two years ago.

"Those who survive have a survival reflex. They scream, swim," Grbic, a married, father-of-three grown-up sons, said.

Every year the authorities register 25 to 30 suicide attempts off Belgrade bridges.

"But these are only registered cases," said Sasa Knezevic, deputy chief of Belgrade's river police unit, adding the figures peak towards the end of the summer.

Police usually act to prevent suicides when they spot potential cases through video surveillance but the closest river police station is about 15 minutes upstream, said Grbic.

"I have known Renato forever," Knezevic said. "If it was not for him, many people would not be saved after jumping into the river."

Grbic said he spent 90 percent of his time fishing. His 29 rescues of Pancevo Bridge jumpers span nearly two decades and his efforts have won him official recognition.

A wall in his restaurant is adorned with elaborate certificates for bravery awarded by local authorities, as well as newspaper articles about him. He was also among around 200 Serb nationals recognised for their outstanding achievements in 2008.

- 'Second life' -

Renato Grbic  55  known for rescuing 29 people who have attempted suicide by jumping from the Pancev...
Renato Grbic, 55, known for rescuing 29 people who have attempted suicide by jumping from the Pancevo Bridge over the Danube, often wonders what has become of those he has saved
Andrej Isakovic, AFP

Serbia is in the top third of European countries with the highest number of suicides, at 16.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the most recent World Health Organization data for 2012.

Grbic believes that most suicide attempts are a cry for help since, he says, most jump in the daytime. "They want to be seen, they want to alert," he said.

Those who really want to die opt for the Brankov Bridge for its concrete river banks, he said.

As far as he knows, Grbic says that out of the 29 people whom he has saved, only one, a postman, did it again and ended his life by going for the concrete.

The first person he rescued was a young man "some 17 or 18 years ago."

"It took me several attempts and I literally begged him to give me a hand" to pull him out, Grbic said.

He often wonders about what has become of those he has saved.

But only two young women out of the 29 got back in touch. One of them, now a mother, "understood that life was worth much more than what she wanted to do."

A psychiatrist, who once came to the restaurant, "told me that... those people were eternally grateful but were embarrassed to face me."

"Nevertheless, I would really like to know something about them... that I offered them a second life and that they kept living," he said.

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