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'You're not dying today': Local prosecutor risks own life to help man in crisis

Hao Nguyen never hesitated to help a man standing on a ledge, but says he never could have done it alone.

ST PAUL, Minn. — In a matter of minutes, two weeks ago, Hao Nguyen went from his office to the top of an icy parking ramp. He also went from saving the life of a man in crisis, to briefly wondering if they both might die.

"It's been difficult," Nguyen said. "But I am just really happy he's alive, and I'm really happy I am, too."

To be clear, Nguyen, says none of it would have been possible if it wasn't for his colleague, and fellow Ramsey County prosecutor, Jennifer Verdeja. 

"There's no way I would have seen him," Nguyen said, recalling that Monday afternoon. "Jen comes into my office and there's a kind of hurried look on her face, and she said, 'Hey, did you see that?' And then she went right to my window."

Hao Nguyen says he had to crane his neck and look up from his second-floor window before he realized what she was referencing. A man was peering over the top of the Victory Parking Ramp Across the street.

"I asked her how long he had been up there,'' Nguyen said. "When she told me that it had been 10 to 15 minutes, immediately, I was also concerned."

As a former Stearns County Sheriff's Deputy, Nguyen spent years responding to mental health crisis calls, and he knew that things could change quickly.

Nguyen: "He was right up against the edge and he was leaning over, and he wasn't moving at all. He was just looking straight down, and it just didn't look right. And it certainly didn't feel right."

Kent Erdahl: "At that moment, what's going through your mind?" 

Nguyen: "I thought every minute and second mattered, and so, I told her to call 911. Then I said I'm going over there." 

After running across the street and taking the elevator of the ramp to the eighth floor, the magnitude of the situation began to come into focus. He stepped off the elevator and saw the man standing on a small snowbank roughly 50 feet away.

"I notice that he's an Asian male and he's around my age - a little bit bigger than me actually - and he's peering right over the edge," Nguyen said. "And I say, 'Hey, how are you doing?' And then he kind of looks at me but he doesn't move, he just turns his head. And then I said, 'WHAT are you doing?'"

"He said, 'I'm doing math calculations.'"

"That worried me," Nguyen said. "Part of me thought, maybe he's doing calculations about jumping. Calculations about his life."

Instead of asking for permission, Nguyen said he slowly walked toward him and told the man that he also liked doing math calculations.

Seconds later, the two were standing next to each other on the snowbank.

"I put my left hand to the left of his and we were both looking over the edge," he said. "It was a straight fall, eight stories down, onto cement, so I just really wanted to get us away from that edge. 

"I put my right hand at the small of his back, on his waistband at his belt. At that point I just decided, I'm going to push with my left hand and pull really hard and pull him away from the edge, and so that's what I did." 

Once they had moved away from the edge, Nguyen says he immediately apologized, and then - with their eyes off the road below - they made eye contact and something else came into focus. 

Nguyen: "I said, 'Hey, man, my name is Hao. What is your name?' And he told me his name and I recognized it as an Asian name. I said, 'My last name is Nguyen, what's your name?' And then he told me his last name. And I said, 'Hey, I'm Vietnamese and Chinese are you?' And he said, 'Yes.' So then I switched to Vietnamese and I said, 'Brother, can we go down together? It is so cold up here.'"

"He responded to me in Vietnamese for a second, but then switched to English for a second and said, 'I want to stay up here and get some fresh air. You're going back down by yourself.'"

"I told him 'No, we're going down together. Please, can we go down together?'" 

As he briefly waited for an answer, Nguyen said the man attempted to lunge past him and force his way back to the ledge.

"At that point, I was really worried we were going to go over the edge together because he sort of had the better of me, to be frank with you. I just couldn't get traction. I was wearing a suit and dress shoes, so I just wrapped my arms around his upper torso and I threw my legs around his legs and I just brought us to the ground. I figured, if we were on the ground, then we wouldn't go over."

"He just kept screaming, 'Why don't you let me die? I want to die.' I just kept screaming, 'You're not dying today. You're not dying today. To me, the only calculation was, we both just, can't die. I thought, if I just hold him here — if we just lay here together — some help will come."

Minutes later, thanks to Verdeja's 911 call, help did come.

Erdahl: "Any idea where he's at or how he's doing?"

Nguyen: "No, I know that he went into an ambulance, and I just really hope he's okay. It's been hard to think about how sad he was; to think about this guy who really shares some of my heritage and also my culture on top of a roof, articulating that he wants to die. I don't know... it's like you're up there with yourself or something. I'm not in that dark place, but I very well could be. If it weren't for some decisions going other ways, I think many of us could find ourselves in a position like that."

Erdahl: "What do you hope for him?"

Nguyen: "I hope he looks back at this in a year, in 20 years, 30 years from now, and he says, 'You know what? That one day really mattered. That one moment really mattered.'"

"I really hope, truly, the best for him."

Hao says he also hopes that by sharing this story, it will help encourage anyone who is currently struggling or in crisis to seek help before it's too late.

If you or someone you know is facing a mental health crisis, there is help available from the following resources:

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