Williamson County Sheriff’s Deputy James “Jim” Zahn.

Williamson County Sheriff’s Deputy James “Jim” Zahn.

Ever since the Natchez Trace Bridge opened on March 22, 1994, it has provided magnificent views from 145 feet above Highway 96 West.

And while the bridge has gained international attention for its design and beauty, it also, unfor-tunately, has also become a popular location for people to commit suicide. 

Williamson County Deputy James “Jim” Zahn became a deputy in 2015. Since then, nine peo-ple have committed suicide and six others have attempted or contemplated doing so at the bridge.  

Zahn has played a part of preventing four of the six attempted suicides.

Like all of the county’s deputies who patrol in the area of the bridge, he makes a point to scan the bridge and the roadsides and ride to the top of the bridge. One afternoon Zahn saw a man sit-ting on the edge of the bridge crying. 

Upon reaching the top of the bridge, “I stopped the car and began talking to him,” Zahn said. “He admitted he needed help.”

Zahn called for an ambulance to insure he could get the help he needed.

In December 2018, while Zahn was driving along Highway 96 and approaching the bridge, he looked up and saw someone walk up to the bridge rail and climb over to stand on the concrete overhang.

“I saw him up there,” Zahn said. “I would’ve bet he wasn’t going to be there when I arrived. It was real windy.”

Zahn sped to the top of the bridge and to the person on the overhang, a young man. 

“My first inclination was to snap him up,” he said. 

Instead, Zahn began talking to the young man, who was staring out into the nothingness ahead of him, as the deputy inched his way closer to him. 

“He finally glanced over to me,” Zahn said. “He went to scoot sideways when he rolled his ankle.”

In an instant, Zahn grabbed the young man and dragged him back to the roadside of the rail. 

“It was fate he rolled his ankle and leaned back enough that I could get him,” Zahn said. “He told me, ‘The only thing I’m mad about is I didn’t jump before you got here.’”

Later, deputies found his back pack, which he’d thrown off the bridge before climbing over the rail. Inside they found a suicide letter, a living will and his reason for committing suicide. The 19-year old wanted to kill himself because of a bad grade. 

The third attempt Zahn helped to defuse involved a girl. She was straddling the rail while a per-son was talking to her. Zahn took advantage of the distraction to go around her and “bear hugged her off the rail.”

The fourth attempt occured on Easter Sunday. When Zahn arrived on the scene, a Natchez Trace park ranger and others were talking to a man who had one leg over the rail. A woman approached and asked (Zahn) if she could talk to the man. He agreed, and she proceeded to tell the man about the funeral she attended the day before — a suicide death. Then she prayed with him while the park ranger and Zahn inched around to his other side and led him off the rail just as a team of crisis negotiators arrived.

“It’s me, but it’s not me,” Zahn said. “People choose to do this. I’m honored to be the right person at the right time. All the guys I work with would do the same.”

Zahn says one of the worst parts about the local suicides is that Natchez Trace Bridge is now known more as “the suicide bridge” than for its beauty. 

“The more advertising, the more people think about it,” he added. “One boy told his friends at Wal-Mart he was going to jump, and he did.” 

Whenever Zahn and other deputies receive a missing-person report, one of the first places they go to is the bridge.

A dream career

Although he had wanted to be a police officer all his life, Zahn didn’t get a chance in law enforcement until much later in his working career. 

“Helping people was all I ever wanted to do,” he said. 

He prepared for his dream career in college, majoring in criminal justice. Then “life happened.” 

Upon graduation, he couldn’t find a job in law enforcement around the St. Louis area, where he lived, so Zahn settled for a job as a conductor with the railroad. Many years later he “fell into” the job with the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office. 

To satisfy his yearning to help others, Zahn had become a volunteer fire fighter/EMT specialist in the St. Louis area. He even worked in a hospital emergency room for a time.

After more than a decade with the railroad, Zahn was laid off in 2012. It was six years before he was called back, after he found his dream job. Early into the layoff, it seemed his dream might be coming true when he secured a part-time job with a police department in Illinois, just over the Missouri border.

In 2015, Zahn’s wife, an administrative assistant for CKE Restaurants, which includes Hardees and Carls Jr., accepted a transfer to Williamson County. The Zahns moved with three of their seven sons, four had reached adulthood and were living on their own. One of the boys was having diffi-culty adjusting to his new school. It was during a talk with the school resource officer that Zahn discovered that the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office was hiring deputies. He applied and got the job.

“I love the brotherhood, the camaraderie,” he said. “I like driving through neighborhoods. I carry badges and pass them out to the kids.”

In his spare time, he plays golf. Most of all, he loves spending time with his family.

Carole Robinson may be contacted at crobinson@williamsonherald.com.

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