Tapes of death plunge in S.F. raise new questions

By Jaxon Van Derbeken
The San Francisco Chronicle (California)
Copyright 2006 San Francisco Chronicle
All Rights Reserved 

Radio transmissions leading up to a San Francisco fire lieutenant's failed effort to rescue a man from a Nob Hill rooftop suggest that the commanding fire official on the scene and a firefighter on a roof nearby saw no immediate risk that the man planned to jump.

The incident commander warned Lt. Victor Wyrsch not to "spook" the man as the lieutenant approached him on the roof, tapes of the Oct. 12 transmissions show. However, Wyrsch did not hear the warning because he had turned his radio off, a Fire Department spokeswoman said.

Wyrsch's attempt to grab Nick Torrico, 26, of Seattle ended in Torrico falling four stories to his death. Wyrsch has told Torrico's family that he could tell from the look in Torrico's eyes that he was about to jump, Torrico's sister said Tuesday, but a videotape of the incident shot by a visiting businessman does not make clear whether the lieutenant ever saw Torrico's face.

The videotape, shot by a visiting Idaho businessman from the nearby Fairmont Hotel, appears to show Torrico struggling to keep from falling down a slanted tile roof as Wyrsch tries but fails to hang onto him.

Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White has praised Wyrsch's effort as heroic. Torrico's family, however, criticized the rescue attempt as impulsive and unnecessary, and three independent experts interviewed by The Chronicle said it ran counter to standard tactics used to handle suicidal people. Those tactics emphasize caution and teamwork by rescuers, and establishing a dialogue with the person they are trying to save, the experts said.

The Fire Department tapes reviewed by The Chronicle consist of 23 minutes of radio transmissions, including conversations between the incident commander, Battalion Chief Raymond Guzman, and a firefighter identified only as Bill — possibly Guzman's chief aide, William Mulkeen — who was watching Torrico from a building next to the roof at 900 Powell St.

About six minutes after Torrico climbed onto the roof at 11:33 a.m., the firefighter radioed to Guzman: "I'm right above him. ... It looks like he's out toward the end. ... He wants to talk to his sister, so I don't know what that means.''

"All right, Bill. It doesn't look like he wants to jump though, right?'' Guzman said.

"I don't think he does, but he could've by now if he wanted to,'' the firefighter replied.

"Yeah, he's not up high enough," Guzman said. "Is that a flat roof where he's standing on?''

At 11:40 a.m. Guzman said over the radio: "Hey, Vic, be careful, don't spook the guy." There was no reply.

Lt. Mindy Talmadge, spokeswoman for the Fire Department, said Tuesday that Wyrsch had turned his radio off as he climbed the fire escape to the roof and had not heard any warnings from his colleagues.

"That is something that Vic did — he turned his radio off so he wouldn't hear radio transmissions and be distracted by them," Talmadge said.

Police who were trying to establish contact with Torrico apparently were not aware that Wyrsch was making his attempt.

Based on the radio transmissions, Torrico fell about 11:42 a.m., about two minutes after the battalion chief's warning to Wyrsch. Fire Department officials said Wyrsch had approached Torrico from behind and tried to grab him away from the edge of the slanted-tile roof.

Guzman declined comment about the incident. Wyrsch has referred all questions to Hayes-White.

The chief, who did not return calls Tuesday, has said that Wyrsch determined that Torrico was about to jump and that another firefighter had also heard Torrico say he was going to jump.

John Hanley, head of the firefighters union, said a radio would have been a hindrance to Wyrsch as he tried to grab Torrico.

"If you go to the other side and grab him, the radio would spook the guy," Hanley said.

"We're 100 percent behind this guy — he did the right move," Hanley said. "You are there, he says he is going to go, you are paid to get 'em. That's your job. He did his job."

Members of Torrico's family, who have spoken with Hayes-White and Wyrsch about Torrico's death, said they were still angry.

On Tuesday, they viewed the videotape of the attempted rescue. The businessman also provided the tape to police and to KGO-TV.

The tape shows Torrico standing on the edge of the roof. Wyrsch comes up from behind and grabs at Torrico, who is taken by surprise. Torrico falls to a seated position and appears to be trying to hang on. Wyrsch continues to hold on to Torrico's shirt, but Torrico slips away and falls over the side.

Torrico's sister Cynthia said the "heart-wrenching" tape left her devastated. "That video is going haunt me for the rest of my life," she said. "I don't think (Wyrsch) should have grabbed him. He startled Nick.

"I know that Victor did not intentionally try to hurt him. Victor was not thinking clearly. He should have had a harness on him, so he could have a better grip on him."

She said that Wyrsch "has to realize he is not Spider-Man."

Wyrsch told the family that Torrico looked like he was going to jump, she said.

"How could he know that?" she said. "They weren't facing each other.

"If you are going to grab someone, do something drastic, you better have him or better have yourself tied down to something," Cynthia Torrico said. "He didn't have a good hold of him at all. Nick did not want to jump. He did not want to fall."


Firefighter tapes

Excerpts of radio conversations Oct. 12 between firefighters on the scene at 900 Powell St., where Nick Torrico was standing on the edge of a fourth-story roof.

Tape starts: 11:37:34 a.m.

"Battalion One, this is Rescue Two.''


"Battalion One, this is Rescue Two, you want us to shoot down there? We're a lot closer than Cliff Rescue."

"Repeat that."

"This is Rescue Two, we are only about a mile or so away, we're a lot closer than Cliff Rescue unit."

"Negative, we've got Rescue One on the scene right now ..."

"All right.''


"1a, Battalion One."

"Battalion One, 20."

"Stand by: All units, kill your siren, kill your siren."


"Go ahead 1a. Yeah, I'm right above him. ... It looks like he's out toward the end (unintelligible) ... He wants to talk to his sister, so I don't know what that means."

"All right, Bill. It doesn't look like he wants to jump though, right?"

"I don't think he does, but he could've by now if he wanted to."

"Yeah, he's not up high enough. Is that a flat roof where he's standing on?"


"Hey, Bill, is there a flat roof right there?"

"Yeah, there's a flat roof up here, when he gets up here."


"Truck 13, Battalion One.''


"Hey, Vic, be careful, don't spook the guy."


Torrico falls after Victor Wyrsch tries to pull him away from the edge. 

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