Port Authority Aims to Stop George Washington Bridge Suicides
By Christopher Maag
Of the dead we know so little.
Their names, usually. The clothes they wore. That they lost hope, and where.
Richard Elliot Stone was one of the latest; he jumped off the George Washington Bridge on July 20, just before sunset. We know he wore jeans and a black T-shirt. He was 30 years old.
The police refuse to give any more information, preferring not to encourage more jumpers. Already, the number of people leaping to their deaths from the George Washington Bridge is increasing, owing,due perhaps, in part to a number of high-profile suicides from the span in recent years.
The death toll by the third week of July had reached 13, on pace to set a new annual record.
Now, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which has taken steps over the years to identify and stop potential jumpers, is taking its most aggressive step yet: construction of a 9-foot fence that officials believe will make jumping from the bridge exceedingly difficult. The move parallels other steps taken by managers of spans across the nation, including San Francisco's famous the Golden Gate Bridge, where a giant net will be put up erected to catch those who jump.
At the GWB, the death toll has risen so quickly that even local advocates for suicide prevention have been caught by surprise. "For years, the average was about six people per year" who jump from the bridge, said Dale Carnhi, director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's metro New York region. "But 13 this year? Wow. I didn't know that."
Thirteen people jumped from the George Washington Bridge in all of 2010, according to the Port Authority Police Department, which patrols the bridge. Two years later, 18 people jumped, and 43 more tried. In 2013, deaths dropped to 16 and averted deaths to 37, said Joe Pentangelo, a spokesman for the Port Authority police.
But with 13 dead and 40 rescues so far in 2014, this may be a year of sad precedent.
Building a fence to prevent suicides on the George Washington Bridge presents a costly, time-consuming challenge. If built incorrectly the fence can function as a sail, catching the strong winds that hit the structure and causing the bridge deck to flex and jump, said Bernie Yostpille, chief structural engineer for the Port Authority's design division.
The end result must be long enough to cover the span, securing walkways on both sides of the bridge, yet of a small-enough gauge enough to prevent would-be climbers from gaining a toehold. The project will cost $37 million to $47 million, Yostpille said, and won't be complete until 2022. The fence will replace the current railing, and is part of a larger project to redo the bridge's walkways and suspension cables.
"Recently, we've had an increase in the number of troubled people wanting to jump from the bridge, so that's when we started to consider ways" to stop them, Yostpille said.
In addition to the fence, the Port Authority decided in recent months to increase bridge patrols by police officers and security guards, improve lighting, and install security cameras and call boxes for people in crisis, all focused on spotting and reaching suicidal people before they can jump.
By far, the most famous bridge with the best-known reputation in the world for suicides is the San Francisco area's Golden Gate, where an estimated 1,600 people have jumped to their deaths since it opened in 1937.
Since at least the 1970s, groups of citizens have pressured the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District into erecting fences or nets along the span to prevent the deaths. For decades, the agency's board refused, primarily citing concern that such barriers would mar the bridge's beauty.
"I was vilified. Certain members of the board just attacked," said Patrick Hines, who took up the fight after his son Kevin survived a jump from the bridge in September 2000. "It was incredible to me how vociferous they were in defending their position that everything was fine at the Golden Gate Bridge."
Last month, the agency's board reversed course. Its members approved a plan in June to spend $76 million to build nets that will extend 20 feet from both sides of the bridge. People who jump anyway may be injured, but they shouldn't die nor be able to escape the net without assistance from bridge workers, said Dana Fehler, a district spokeswoman.
The project is awaiting spending approval from California and federal agencies. Construction will take three years.
"I think it's historic," Fehler said. "Among the board members, their feeling is we need to do the right thing."
In New York State, seven bridges over gorges near the campus of Cornell University came to attract a growing number of jumpers in the 1990s and 2000s. The trend climaxed in February and March 2010, when three Cornell students jumped to their deaths, the last two on consecutive days.
The school and the Ithaca city government responded by building fences and nets, including one enclosure described as a "vertical mesh sock," across seven bridges.
In New Jersey, some suicide-prevention experts doubt such barriers would be effective.
"I don't know whether that is going to make a difference. Will they find another bridge?" said Sylvia Axelrod, executive director of New Jersey's chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
"The bigger issue is mental health and suicide prevention."
But research published over the last 20 years from bridges around the world suggests that nets and fences reduce jumping suicides significantly, often down to zero. A review of 19 research papers by the Harvard School of Public Health found that "barriers have been largely effective in stopping or dramatically reducing suicide deaths."
"We know barriers work," said Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. "We know that they give people what they need, which is some time so they can change their mind and also so other people can intervene." Kevin Hines was falling headfirst at 75 mph when he thought "I do not want to die."
Hines had just taken a running hop and vaulted himself over the rail of the Golden Gate Bridge. In flight, he kicked his head backward. This caused him to hit the water in a seated position, protecting his head and neck, and preventing his ribs from rupturing internal organs.
Hines is one of very few people to survive a fall from such heights. Researchers have learned a lot from him and survivors of suicide attempts from other bridges about why people jump and what may stop them.
One lesson involves the singular nature of bridges, said Dr. Alan L. Berman, who recently stepped down as leader of the American Association of Suicidology. More than simply tall structures, some bridges, like the Golden Gate, become symbols for entire cities and regions. Such symbolism encourages "magical thinking" among would-be jumpers to seek publicity, "as if they would be able to appreciate the media attention given after their death," Berman said.
"It's the optimist that jumps," said Dr. Ronald W. Maris, a suicide expert and professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of South Carolina. "It's romantic. It's public. There's always the possibility of being seen, of getting talked out of it. If you're more ambivalent, you might be deterred by a detention device."
The impulse grows stronger as locations grow more famous, said Michelle Cornette, the suicidology association's new executive director. The George Washington Bridge received international attention in September 2010 when Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers University student from Ridgewood, jumped after his roommate filmed him in an intimate encounter with another man.
Its infamy grew again when Ashley Riggitano, 20, a fashion student originally from Paramus, jumped in February 2013.
Suicides that receive widespread media attention can start a "cluster" or "contagion" effect, Cornette said, attracting growing numbers of depressed or mentally unstable people to jumping. That's why suicide prevention experts and the Port Authority Police Department encourage journalists and users of social media to disclose as little information about jumpers as possible.
Another lesson gleaned from survivors, including Hines, is that the impulse to jump is usually strong but short-lived. If they can support people through that intense time, mental health experts believe they can dramatically reduce the likelihood that people will attempt suicide in the future.
"Jumping off the bridge was so terrifying that my body and mind were shocked back into reality," Hines said. "I had a psychosis that said I was a burden to all who loved me. But the second my hands left the railing, I realized it wasn't true."
Finally, like most jumpers, Hines had no Plan B. If something or someone had prevented him from jumping off the Golden Gate, he said, he probably would not have tried the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which is not far from the Golden Gate, nearly as tall and similarly lethal.
Hines' experience is supported by research, Harkavy-Friedman said, showing that depressed or mentally ill people who are thwarted from jumping off one bridge usually lack the wherewithal to try another spot.
"Those suicidal, by definition, are not great problem-solvers," Berman said.
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