Would-be jumper has Stern words

Photograph: ON SOLID GROUND: Emilio Bonilla and his clippings. Photo Credit: Leila Gorchev.

By Edward Lewine, Staff Reporter

Emilio Bonilla. Kurt Cobain. Two suicidal celebrities of the electronic age -- one who made it and one who didn't -- face off across the television screen.

"I think he did the right thing," said Bonilla, a letter sorter at Manhattan's main post office, as he watched the rock star singing in an MTV video. "'Cause he wanted it more than anything else."

Bonilla, a Co-op City resident, recently made the headlines when he threatened to jump off the George Washington Bridge during a rowdy interview with radio ``shock jock'' Howard Stern that was heard by 8 million people nationwide. Two months later he's still alive and celebrating his 30th birthday at home.

"He's getting stronger and stronger," said Helen Trimble, a cosmetics saleswoman who was the first to reach Bonilla on the bridge and has since become his friend.

David Conroy of Suicide Prevention Resources, who works in the borough, said everybody doesn't do as well as Bonilla. This is especially true south of Fordham Road, where many new immigrants are adjusting to life here and to long-term problems like crime and addiction that can make life a struggle for anyone.

About 700 people a year kill themselves in the city, and 40 percent of them make a failed attempt first, Conroy said.

"Their most common denominator is unbearable pain from mental or physical illness, substance abuse or family and relationship problems," he said.

Bonilla said broken dreams led him to the bridge. "I didn't want to be average anymore, working 9 to 5," he said. "I knew there had to be more out there, but each time I tried, I was getting chopped down."

Bonilla said he regrets both trying to kill himself and calling Stern. He said he didn't want publicity that morning, he just wanted to be "cheered up." That, he says, is why he used the pseudonym "Prince."

Since then he has been in the studio with Stern once and has called in a number of times to talk about his exploits. Bonilla tried to call again on his birthday, but a producer told him they weren't interested.

These days Bonilla sits at home while his lawyers argue with his employers over his job, but he is seeing a psychiatrist once a week on the post office's health plan.

Although Conroy points out that there is no correlation between income and suicide, he does think that treatment is hard to find in the poorer neighborhoods.

"Suicidal people have multiple problems; what they need is treatment tailored to their individual needs," he said.

Bonilla, for his part, still seems to be confused about his state of mind that fateful morning. While he said that his suicide attempt was "very for real," he also said he was a coward and probably wouldn't have gone through with it.

Bonilla looks calm and relaxed now, but, according to Conroy, he's not out of the woods.

"If the underlying problems were not addressed before," he said. "They need to be now."

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The Bronx Beat, February 27, 1995