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Nish believed I was an undercover IRA agent. Police had to send in a SWAT team to save me; EXCLUSIVE: WIDOW OF SAS SUICIDE SKYDIVER ON HIS DESCENT INTO MADNESS.

Byline: CHRISTINE CHALLAND

WHEN SAS hero Charles "Nish" Bruce leaped to his death from a light aircraft two weeks ago, it was the final act of madness his estranged wife had feared for years.

Olivia Bruce knew better than anyone why the handsome, ex-Red Devils skydiver had chosen to end his life in such a nightmare manner.

Her husband was so dangerously unstable that she had been advised by his doctors to leave him for her own safety.

This was the man who at one stage became convinced Olivia was an undercover IRA agent. Once police even had to send in a SWAT team to rescue her and her daughters when she found Nish wild-eyed and all the carving knives missing.

"No one will ever really understand the love we shared and how hard it was to sustain that love in the face of his mental problems," says Olivia, who was married to Nish for three years.

"The whole thing has been devastating because Nish and I were together in total for five years and I had supported him through some of the lowest points in his life."

Nish, 46, one of the world's best freefallers with nearly 4,000 skydives to his credit, was on a routine flight with close friend and business partner Judith Haig at the controls of a Cessna, when he calmly pushed back his seat, unbuckled his harness, opened the door and jumped. He was not wearing a parachute.

On hearing the news, Olivia, 44, immediately thought of his terrible obsession with taking his own life.

"His death is shocking but at the same time it isn't surprising because he was always talking about how he wanted to commit suicide and the various ways in which he would go through with it."

The couple married in 1998 but when Nish died they had been separated for two years because of his instability. In spite of everything, they had remained close.

"I was horrified to think people may have felt our divorce contributed to his depression," says Olivia. "It was shocking and, for me, typifies the ignorance so many people have about Nish's illness."

Olivia was teaching beauty therapy in Hereford, near the SAS headquarters, when she met Nish - whose nickname stems from a European wind - in 1996.

SHE last spoke to him less than three weeks before he died when he called just after Christmas. He sounded happy, asking how she and her six-year-old daughter Georgia were enjoying their new life in the Cayman Islands.

"It was like speaking to the old Nish," recalls Olivia, who moved from Hereford to the Caribbean 10 months ago to work as a personal assistant to a property developer. "He sounded so upbeat that I felt we'd really moved on and were able to be friends. I even asked him to think about a trip to the Caymans to see us.

"Maybe he was ringing to say 'goodbye' to me. Although that's something I don't think I'll ever come to terms with, I'm glad he did.

"When I met him, he was everything a woman wants in a man - courageous, exciting, sexy, loving, kind and very funny. But in the end, it was impossible for me to carry on."

Olivia's memories of Nish are as poignant as they are disturbing. Her photo albums are stacked with smiling images of a golden couple with film-star looks.

But within six weeks of their relationship starting, Olivia realised that her tough guy, who had joined the Parachute Regiment at 17 in 1973, was suffering from severe depression.

Nish had served in the Falklands and in Northern Ireland and left the SAS in 1988, two years after being awarded the Queen's Gallantry Medal for heroism in Ulster.

For several months, he had worked as a bodyguard for comedian Jim Davidson and life should have been full of promise. Instead, he was profoundly disturbed by his Army service,

Olivia says: "A lot of what he had experienced in the SAS came back to haunt him. There were times when I would hold him in my arms and let him cry. The thing I believe most affected him was the death of his friend Al Slater. Every New Year, he'd visit his grave and pour a whisky over it."

Slater was killed in an IRA ambush in Northern Ireland in 1986 when he, Nish and two other members of Air Troop B Squadron were tipped off about an IRA bomb and sent to the isolated Kesh-to-Beleek road in Co Donegal.

The IRA was known to lure police and security forces to a bomb detonation area and often had a hit squad ready to ambush any survivors. As the unit split up, Nish found himself in freezing fog, crouched in a ditch, when a man jumped a fence and landed three feet away. Nish held his fire. Moments later, as the figure moved away, Al Slater was gunned down further along the road.

"Nish was haunted by that night and, maybe, many more dark memories that he took to his grave without telling anyone," says Olivia. "He always wondered if by confronting the man in the ditch, he could have saved Al's life."

Olivia's first direct experience of Nish's problems came in a phone call from him asking her to drive to his house in Hereford.

"He opened the door wearing just his boxer shorts, looking drained and terrified. I couldn't help feeling unnerved when he closed the door behind me.

"He was shifting from one foot to the other and pushing me backwards into a corner of the kitchen. His eyes held mine, void of any emotion and he was growling. I thought I was going to die. Never had I felt so frightened and yet I knew that I had to stay calm." Nish suddenly spat out his two false front teeth and lurched towards Olivia: "I thought he was going to chew my face. I managed to grab his arms and spoke softly, telling him to calm down and that I'd look after him."

It was Olivia's first encounter with the madness that later saw Nish enter a psychiatric unit. He was released after six weeks - but shortly afterwards, his depression became so severe that he was readmitted.

OLIVIA was determined to stand by him: "It coincided with my youngest daughter Georgia being diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

"She was a year old and my world collapsed. But I can remember what an inspiration Nish was as I sat rocking her in my arms in the grounds of the unit.

"To see that man, drugged up to the eyeballs, shuffling round with tiny steps, gently lift Georgia, cradle her and tell me with tears in his eyes that everything was going to be all right, was the most moving moment in my life with Nish. It made me weep. In spite of his own anguish, he was still able to give me hope."

The interlude of calm was brief. Months later, returning from a visit to Olivia's mother in France, Nish was at the wheel of his Ford Sierra when he suddenly turned off the headlights and wipers in torrential rain and donned a pair of sunglasses.

Then, silent and seemingly unperturbed by the brakelights ahead, he drove at high speed in the darkness. Georgia was asleep on Olivia's lap.

Olivia says: "I calmly told him: 'I don't know what's going through your head but just think of Georgia, for God's sake.' I knew that if I'd started screaming, it might have been enough to make him kill us all."

Nish turned the headlights on and removed his sunglasses, leaving Olivia recalling how he'd once told her that one of his preferred suicides would be driving head-on into another car. She hoped for more stability after Nish was persuaded by his friend, ex-SAS soldier and author Andy McNabb, to write a book about his experience, concentrating on his mental problems. Nish co-wrote Freefall under the pseudonym Tom Read, completed during a happy six-week holiday in Spain with Olivia and her daughters.

But once again, the lull was brief. Within a few months of the family's return to Hereford and the book's publication, the delusions returned with a vengence. Nish was convinced Olivia was an IRA undercover agent who was trying to poison his meals.

She says: "There were moments of extreme mental clarity and lucidity but they were always overshadowed. He knew the psychiatric unit was his only respite but he hated the drugs he was on and was constantly fighting mental battles to make sense of what was happening to him."

In May, 1999, after Nish tried to drown himself in the bath, he was taken back to hospital. A month later he returned home, leaving the unit without telling staff.

The incident that followed made Olivia realise that their future together was effectively over.

"I was putting Georgia to bed when I heard someone in the kitchen. Alicia, my 16-year old daughter was in her bedroom with friends, and our nanny was asleep." In the kitchen she found Nish pacing up and down: "I knew he was planning something. He told me he would be killed and that the unit staff were the enemy, underground IRA.

"A few minutes later, he disappeared into the living room, turned out the lights and wouldn't open the door or answer me."

IT WAS when Olivia noticed a carving knife missing from its wooden block that she whispered up the stairs to Alicia to phone the psychiatric unit. Within 15 minutes, a police SWAT team had surrounded the house.

"They knew his history and two armed officers turned up at the back door and told me we had to evacuate. The girls and our nanny were creeping down the stairs - I was told had four minutes to pack a small bag and join them."

The next morning, a negotiator finally persuaded Nish to come out. Olivia says: "He had hidden two other knives, one above the front door and the other behind a picture. He was convinced that if the IRA were going to try to kill him, at least he would be armed and ready."

With Nish back in the unit, Olivia decided she'd had enough. "My whole family was at risk and I couldn't take any more. You can't live with a madman. You begin to lose your own sanity. Nish's illness made him irrational and, at times, so dangerous that even his doctor told me I wasn't safe staying with him.

"I had to admit to myself that I had lost the Nish I knew and he was suffering from such severe paranoid delusions that he no longer knew me.

"I'll always remember him telling me a few weeks after we met that we had to make the most of our time together as he didn't have long. Even then, his illness was taking a grip and I always assumed he was referring to that. Now he's gone, I wonder whether he was talking about his life.

"He had too many demons. No matter how hard he tried to drive them out, I think he always knew they would come back to haunt him."

CAPTION(S):

NEW LIFE: Olivia today; Picture: NEVILLE WILLIAMS; LAST TESTAMENT: Nish's book; ON A HIGH: Spain in early days. Left, skydiving together; KIND: A calmer Nish with Georgia
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 26, 2002
Words:1900
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