San Diego

Air Mattress That Saved I-5 Jumper Acquired at Request of Firefighter Stabbed in Trolley Attack

Ben Vernon requested the air mattress to save the lives of any jumpers in the future.

A giant air mattress used by the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department (SDFD) to help a despondent man threatening to jump off a bridge over Interstate 5 last week has an incredible back story. 

It all starts with SDFD Firefighter Benjamin Vernon.

Vernon was one of two firefighters who was stabbed during a routine medical call in June 2015. He suffered a punctured lung in the attack and was taken to the hospital.

He was laying on a table in the emergency room shortly after the attack, naked, as doctors inserted a tube into his chest to re-inflate his lung. 

It was then that SDFD Chief Javier Mainer walked in and asked if there was anything he could do. 

“The first thing he said was ‘Ben, what can I get you?’ And he probably meant ‘could I get you a cup of water,’ but I took that as the opportunity," said Vernon. "I said ‘Chief, now that I got you here, I want to buy a rescue air cushion to save potential jumpers off bridges."

It may seem like an unusual and unexpected request in that moment, but for Vernon, it was something he had been thinking about for a while now. 

A year prior to the attack, Vernon responded to a call with a despondent 19-year-old threatening to commit suicide. 

After three hours of negotiation, she jumped from the bridge and died at his feet. 

“She landed at my feet, opened her eyes, spoke to me a few times and then she died,” said Vernon.

So he used that time in the hospital to convince the chief to buy the $15,000 air mattress, known as the Rescue Air Cushion. The mattress is 20 feet wide, 20 feet long and nine feet high. When raised, it can protect a jumper leaping from 100 feet up. 

In another twist to the story, Vernon learned the department had decided to buy the mattress on the day he testified against the man who stabbed him. 

“I was in court waiting to testify and I got the text, and that made feel really good and helped me kind of relaxed and testify,” said Vernon.

Officials at the San Diego Police Department (SDPD) credit the mattress for helping to save the man in the Interstate 5 incident. Even though the man sidestepped the mattress, it forced him to land in bushes.

“I actually called for the deployment of the bag in a chance if he fell off the rail, he would actually fall on the bag,” said SDPD Lt. Mark Bennett.

“He saw the rescue air cushion, and he didn’t want to go for that, but he landed in the bushes and we saved the day anyway," Bennett recalled. "It feels like a win for me."

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