BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — On a bright autumn day, Renato Grbic was out fishing on the Danube with his brother when he heard a big splash. At first, he thought somebody had thrown something off the bridge.
Then he saw a man flailing in the water.
“We hurried and pulled the man out,” Grbic recalls. “I remember telling him: Such a glorious day and you want to kill yourself!”
It was the first time Grbic saved a life. From that day 15 year ago, his own life would never be the same. The bright-eyed, tattooed restaurant owner from a shabby industrial zone on the outskirts of Belgrade has rescued 25 people who tried to kill themselves by jumping off the tall bridge over the Danube.
Always on alert in his little wooden motor boat, the burly 51-year-old has pulled people out of the river’s muddy waters without asking for anything in return.
“I couldn’t turn my back on them,” Grbic said. “They are desperate people.”
Grbic has been dubbed the “Superman of the Danube” by his admirers and awarded a hero’s plaque by Belgrade city authorities. But even “Superman” can’t save everybody who jumps off the 18-meter- (60-foot-) high bridge: At least as many as he had saved have killed themselves at the spot since Grbic’s first rescue.
“When I hear that someone has jumped and I wasn’t there I really feel bad,” he said. “My eyes are always on the bridge.”
The Pancevo bridge became a favored suicide spot because it’s Belgrade’s only bridge over the Danube, which is bigger and colder and has stronger underwater currents than the city’s other river, the Sava.
“That was it,” Grbic says. “He didn’t speak, they never do.”
Goran Penev, a researcher with Serbia’s Institute of Social Sciences, said Serbia’s suicide rate is at the upper side of the European average. Penev noted there was a sharp rise in the early 1990s, at the beginning of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, but the situation has been relatively stable ever since. In 2011, nearly 1,300 people in Serbia — a country of 7 million people — took their lives.
Grbic has found that some of the people he rescued suffered from cancer or other terminal illnesses, while others cited poverty or unrequited love.
All, he said, felt lonely.