For nearly an hour, police and firefighters waited out the man as he stood at the edge of a Loop bridge in the freezing cold and threatened to jump.
A helicopter hovered nearby. Two boats stayed at the ready in the Chicago River below.
Finally, it was time to act: The man quit talking and he seemed to be loosening his grip on the railing.
"They got close enough where they could grab him and flip him back over the rail," said Central District police Lt. John Willner.
The 43-year-old man collapsed, sobbing, and was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, police said.
The rescue played out around 3:35 a.m. Tuesday at the LaSalle Street bridge. The first crews to reach the man saw him perched at the edge of the bridge. He kept repeating, "I can't go back to jail, I can't go back," according to police.
Authorities said he was being sought by Bellwood police for a domestic issue.
About 45 minutes went by as negotiators talked to the man and inched closer and closer, finally getting about a foot and a half away. All the while, they tried to get him to talk. The man started to cry when a police officer asked about his grandson.
“We were running out of time,’’ said one of the firefighters on the scene, Eric Sobolewski. “It seemed like his attitude had changed a little bit. He got quiet and it was getting really cold. His hands had been on a cold railing for almost an hour.''
Then the man dropped his cell phone and keys and change from his pocket onto the ground, as if to leave them behind.
Sobolewski said the man seemed to be "making up his mind," so the firefighter began talking to him again. “I was saying, ‘It’s not worth it, there’s a better way. . .You’ve got kids, I’ve got kids. You wouldn’t want to put them through this.' "
By this time, Sobolewski said he and another firefighter, Mike Cronin, had gotten within reach of the man. “We were getting closer and closer, and Mike and I just kind of looked at each other and grabbed him,’’ said Sobolewski, 41, who has nearly 10 years on the job as a firefighter.
Sobolewski said he and Cronin both have years of training for this kind of emergency, but it still comes as a surprise. “It was unreal. . .You’re out there in the freezing cold and you don’t imagine that these things are going to happen."
Added Cronin, “It’s nice when things work out well."
"You really, really have to have everyone working together,’’ said Cronin, who is also 41 and works out of Squad One, like Sobolewski. He’s been a firefighter for 13 years.
“I’m just glad the guy's OK,’’ Cronin said. “It might not have had a happy ending if we didn’t have everybody working and doing their jobs and preparing for something bad to happen.''
Willner singled out several police officers, including John Harrison, Belinda Flores, Calvin Blunt, Eleanor Diggs and Sgt. Craig Roberts. "It was a tremendous effort," Willner said.