On-Line Lifeline

updated 11/14/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/14/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

SHARON HERBITTER PLANNED TO spend only several minutes on Oct. 21 reading messages and greeting friends on the Christian Interactive Network, an electronic bulletin board available to CompuServe subscribers. One of the first postings she spotted was titled "The Intercessory Prayer," written by someone identified only as John. "Please pray for us," it began. "Last night Becky said she had no love left for me, and money was the only thing stopping divorce. I am lost." The writer went on to say that he "tried to end it tonight" by locking himself in his truck and breathing carbon monoxide. "The Christian radio playing was the only thing that pulled me back. I don't know how long I can resist the need to be free from the hurt."

The message—from its title, a cry for help—had been written just over an hour earlier. "It hit me like a ton of bricks, and I started crying," says Her-bitter, 36, a homemaker in Plant City, Fla. "I felt like I was watching a man on a bridge about to jump." First she tried to contact John directly but discovered that he was no longer online. Then she began sending messages to anyone she could find who had posted a message on the same bulletin board. "I started typing over and over, 'Do you know this man?' to everyone on the list," she says. No one did.

Near despair, Herbitter, with several other users, turned to another service of CompuServe—a "chat room," where computer buffs in different cities can talk to each other simultaneously. There they began a so-called chapel service to pray for the distraught author. "Father, guard this man's life until help can arrive," wrote one. "We come against the spirit of suicide, against negative destructive thoughts."

Meanwhile Kevin Tupper, 28, a self-employed computer analyst in Centreville, Va., 25 miles southwest of Washington, had received Herbitter's message and looked up "The Intercessory Prayer." He sent a quick note to the chapel service. "I said, 'You all pray—I'm going to call 911,' " he says. "Prayer is good, but sometimes you've got to act." Using John's ID number, Tupper consulted the CompuServe membership directory and identified the sender as John Dodd of Miami, Ind., a hamlet of 400 people some 60 miles north of Indianapolis. Then he called his local emergency telephone operator and was connected to the police in Miami. He breathlessly explained the situation to a somewhat skeptical Michelle Morecraft, 22, dispatcher for the Miami County Sheriffs Department. "They didn't understand how I could know that someone was about to kill himself in Indiana," says Tupper. "I explained what was happening as quickly as I could."

Worried that Morecraft would dismiss his call as a hoax, Tupper dialed the CompuServe computer help line—normally used by members suffering glitches with their machines—to double-check Dodd's address. After getting a busy signal on the usually swamped phone line, Tupper said a quick prayer of his own before trying again. "I thought, 'Okay, God, let me know if this is what I should be doing.' " This time his call went through. A technician looked up Dodd's address and called Morecraft.

As it happened, that wasn't necessary. Morecraft had found Dodd's address in the phone book and radioed deputy Gary Glassburn, who was on patrol. Glassburn knew about Dodd. He had been at Dodd's ramshackle, two-story home several times before for what he calls minor disturbance calls. He got to the house in minutes. The lights were on, but when he looked in the windows he could see no one.

Then, as he walked past the garage, he heard an engine running. He shoved on a side door and was momentarily staggered by clouds of exhaust fumes. Dodd was slumped unconscious in the front seat of his pickup; his feet were dangling out the passenger-side window. "He was in a deep sleep and when he came to was very confused," says Glassburn. Dodd, 40, a part-time laundry worker and college student, was rushed to a hospital for treatment. A judge subsequently signed an emergency order sending him to Four County Counseling Center in nearby Logansport, Ind., and Dodd was later reunited with his wife.

Last week Dodd returned to the Christian Interactive Network to thank Tupper and Herbitter for helping to save him—and to assure both that his life is on the mend. The three wound up having a long chat via computer. "We were all praising the Lord he survived," says Tupper. "He was making a cry for help, and he got some. Now he thinks God must have some sort of reason for him to be alive."

BILL SHAW in Miami, DON SIDER in Plant City and SCOTT BOWLES in Centreville

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