Ryan’s story: A hard-charging California firefighter loses his last battle to suicide
He was Superman. A skilled surfer, skateboarder and hockey defenseman. A leader much admired and sometimes resented. He was hard-charging, driven by the motto of his unit: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”
Cal Fire Captain Ryan Mitchell was the embodiment of the heroic archetype: 6–foot-4, strong and stoic, brave in the face of danger, the last person anyone expected to take his own life.
Until he did.
On that bright November morning, Mitchell cleared up the paperwork at the end of his shift, locked the bay doors at Station 20 in El Cajon and set out to put an end to his pain.
He drove half an hour through picturesque rolling hills to a remote bridge in San Diego County and pulled off to the side of the road. Nearby, large public-service signs urged anyone considering suicide to call a toll-free number.
Mitchell got out of his car, walked onto the Pine Valley Creek Bridge and stepped off the 440-foot-high span. He was 35 years old.
One of many
It was 2017, and Mitchell was one of at least 117 firefighters across the country who took their own lives that year, according to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, the only national organization that tracks such figures.
Although there are ample anecdotal stories about suicides among California firefighters, there is no data detailing the scope of the problem at Cal Fire. National data also is sparse, but suicides appears to be increasing nationwide: The alliance has verified 1,750 firefighter suicides since 1880, with 95% of the deaths occurring between 2000 and 2022. Jeff Dill, a retired fire chief who founded the alliance, estimates that only about a third of firefighter suicides are identified because of the social stigma and code of silence.
The statistics paint a grim picture: Desperate firefighters turn guns on themselves or drive into trees. One jammed a stick of dynamite in his mouth and lit the fuse. Some set themselves on fire.
Tony Martinez, a Cal Fire captain in Napa County, said many coworkers have committed suicide — or attempted to, some multiple times.
“I can’t tell you how many coworkers and longtime friends have killed themselves, and four times as many have attempted it in the last few years. Three co-workers in Cal Fire died last week. Died by suicide,” Martinez said.
Cell phones began buzzing around 11 a.m. on that Sunday, when many of Mitchell’s family members and friends were at church. A phone tree began heating up with the same urgent question: “Have you heard from Ryan?”
Tony Mecham, Mitchell’s battalion chief in El Cajon, was driving back from a family emergency and left strict instructions not to be bothered. When he received two calls in five minutes, he knew it was something serious. His duty chief reached him while he was driving with his wife on a freeway in the San Fernando Valley.
“I don’t know how to tell you this, but Ryan Mitchell just jumped off the Pine Valley Bridge,” the chief told Mecham.
“I remember it as clear as day,” Mecham said. “I tried to catch my breath. I pulled over, and as my wife drove, I got on the phone and started making calls.”
The 911 calls did not identify the jumper. But once it became clear that a Cal Fire captain was involved, the tenor of the emergency response changed. In terse, tight communications, the region’s first responders moved swiftly to recover the body of a brother in uniform.
A Cal Fire division chief who knew Mitchell’s parents was dispatched to locate them; another was sent to notify Mitchell’s estranged wife, who had been looking for him when he failed to pick up his 16-month-old son. A sheriff’s deputy met Mitchell’s parents at their church.
Mecham began to manage the emotional fallout he knew was coming. It was the worst possible scenario: Mitchell’s own workmates responded to the 911 call from a citizen reporting his suicide. The crew sent to the scene had recognized Mitchell’s vehicle, a distinctive, beat-up station wagon he used when he went surfing.
Commanders took Mitchell’s fire station out of service for the day and instructed other battalion chiefs to visit every station to break the news. Local fire crews covered for Cal Fire that day.
The San Diego County Sheriff and California Highway Patrol let Cal Fire know they would handle the operation. Mecham wanted his people at the scene, but he didn’t want them to have to retrieve their co-worker’s body.