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|11.30.23: Skyway suicide ends remarkable 19-month run without one.
11.30.23, tampabay.com, Tuesday’s suicide was the first since
April 2022, a remarkable stretch for a bridge that averaged about one per month before
fencing was installed in 2021.
By Tony Marrero, Times staff., Editor’s note: This story includes discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, resources are available to help. Please see the information at the end of this story.
A man jumped to his death from the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway bridge on Tuesday, the first suicide from the bridge in 19 months, according to state data.
That is likely the longest period of time without a suicide on the bridge since the existing span opened in 1987. The remarkable stretch appears to be more evidence that fencing erected two years ago is working to reduce suicides on a bridge that previously averaged about one per month, making it one of the country’s deadliest.
"The system has performed as anticipated with very little maintenance needed," Kris Carson, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Transportation, said Wednesday in an email in response to questions from the Tampa Bay Times.
According to the Florida Highway Patrol, the last suicide on the bridge before Tuesday’s incident was on April 24, 2022. Sgt. Steve Gaskins, a spokesperson for the agency, could not confirm Wednesday that the 19-month stretch was the longest without a suicide since 1987.
But before the fencing was erected, the Skyway typically saw about a dozen suicides each calendar year. In 2018, the number jumped to 18, a record.
In 2021, when the fencing was erected, there were two suicides. There were also two in 2022.
Highway Patrol call data indicates the number of attempted suicides on the bridge may also be trending downward.
Most years before the fencing was installed, the attempted suicide calls reached double digits. The agency responded to 12 attempted suicide calls in 2021, but just five in 2022 and three so far this year.
Officials have acknowledged that the fencing is difficult but not impossible to climb. The diamond-patterned steel netting, attached to poles that extend vertically from the concrete barrier wall, resembles chicken wire, creating an obstacle nearly 11 feet high. The netting extends along the northbound and southbound spans to a point where the bridge is roughly 50 feet above the water.
The goal was to prevent some people from trying to jump at all and at least slow down people who did try, giving first responders more time to arrive and try to intervene. Previously, only the waist-high barrier wall stood between the bridge deck, which at its highest point soars nearly 200 feet over Tampa Bay, and the water below.
The man who jumped Tuesday apparently was able to make it over the fencing before first responders could arrive and try to intervene.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office received calls about 3:40 p.m. for reports of a suspicious man on the bridge, according to the sheriff’s office. The Florida Highway Patrol was the first to arrive in response to the call. A witness told troopers that a man got out of his vehicle, climbed the fencing on the northbound span and jumped, according to the sheriff’s office.
Marine units from the Hillsborough and Manatee sheriff’s offices responded, and the Manatee unit found the body of a man matching the description of the person who jumped.
The Hillsborough sheriff’s office continued to investigate the incident on Wednesday.
A state contractor started work on the fencing in January 2021 and completed the project in June of that year, on time and about $40,000 over the $3.41 million budget.
Carson, the transportation department spokesperson, said the cost of routine maintenance of the fencing is included in the department’s overall annual maintenance budget for the Skyway, and so far there have been no additional costs beyond that.
Some critics of the fencing called it an ugly waste of money and claimed that people seeking to die by suicide would climb the fence or simply choose another method. But research has shown that people at immediate risk for suicide often don’t try using another method if their preferred method is not available, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Along with making sure firearms and medications are not accessible, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center includes bridge barriers on its list of strategies to reduce the risk of suicide.
Carson said the six call boxes installed on the Skyway in 1999 that connect directly to the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay will remain in place. And before the fencing was built, the state transportation department installed a system that detects and alerts officials to parked vehicles and pedestrians on the bridge to reduce response times.
"Our position is that anything that prevents even one suicide is a positive step," Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Amanda Granit said in an email. "It does seem these fences are a deterrent, which is great. We also want to remind people that suicide is never the solution. We would urge people to reach out to the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay at 211, 24/7."
Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988, visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org, or call the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay by dialing 2-1-1.
11.29.23: Crisis Center of Tampa Bay
helps install signs on Skyway: 'Reach out for help'.
11.29.23, fox13news.com, ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay hopes signs it helped install on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge are a lifeline.
"If you are struggling, the hardest portion of the journey is just reaching out to ask for help," said Clara Reynolds, the president and CEO of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.
The signs include messages like, "You are alive for a reason – don’t give up," and "There is hope. Make the call." The Center worked with the Florida Department of Transportation to also install six phones that call the Center and an officer, and netting on the bridge.
FDOT also installed technology that detects stopped vehicles and pedestrians on the bridge to reduce response times when motorists park on the bridge.
"While the netting has done a lot to prevent suicides there, that doesn't necessarily mean that people are less suicidal. So, we have to continue with the message of how important it is to reach out for help when you need it, and if you're a family member or loved one, friend, reach out to somebody you think might be struggling," Reynolds said.
Since the netting was installed in the summer of 2021, suicides and attempted suicides on the Skyway have decreased, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. In 2019, there were 12 suicides and 15 attempted suicides. In 2020, there were seven suicides and nine attempted suicides.
In 2022 after the netting was installed, there were two suicides and five attempted suicides. In 2023, there has been one suicide and three attempted suicides.
Deputies with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said a man died by suicide Tuesday. Witnesses told deputies they saw a man jump from the bridge, and marine units with HCSO and the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office responded and found him.
According to a report from the CDC, 49,449 people died by suicide in 2022. That’s about 14.3 per 100,000 people, the highest since 1941, the report said. It’s also a three percent increase from 2021.
"Obviously, none of us want to see an increase, but three percent isn’t necessarily a surprise," Reynolds said. "What was surprising was to see the reduction in the under 24 and the increase in the 65 and over, and I would imagine that the under 24 I think we as a society and that demographic is doing a much better job of asking for help when they need it."
Reynolds said messaging, specifically on social media, around 988, the new crisis and suicide hotline, has been extremely beneficial for the younger generation. Among the older population, however, she said there’s still a stigma about mental health.
"We need to do a better job of messaging to that demographic," she said. "I think we have a ways to go in focusing on these older generations who are experiencing tremendous issues right now, issues related to economics, just the sense of loss, those kinds of things that certainly can take their toll in that age group," Reynolds said.
The holidays can be especially difficult for some people. Calls to the center skyrocketed the day after Thanksgiving, Reynolds said. She said it’s important to reach out to those who may seem like they’re struggling.
"The holiday season, we oftentimes think of being such a happy and joyful time, but for many individuals, it is a time of despair, truly, because individuals may not have family, whether it’s family they were born into or a family friend group that they can reach out to," Reynolds said.
"If you're a family member or friend, and you've got that niggle in your belly that something isn't right, listen to it. Reach out. Ask somebody, ‘How are you doing? Are you feeling suicidal?’ It's a myth that if you bring up the word suicide it's going to plant some sort of idea in their head. That's absolutely not the case," she said. "What we know, what science has told us is that when somebody is suicidal, they oftentimes feel very alone and that nobody sees them. So, when you recognize that somebody is struggling, and you give them that opportunity, it can oftentimes be the lifeline that they truly need in that moment in time."
She said spending time with someone, especially during the holidays, can also make a big difference.
"If a person has something to look forward to, that’s going to go a long way in helping to alleviate the sense of loneliness," Reynolds said.
According to the CDC, men 75 and older had the highest suicide rate in 2022, about 44 deaths per 100,000 people. Men were also four times more likely to die by suicide in 2022 than women, the report said.
If you or someone you know is struggling, you can call 988 24/7. You can also call 211 to reach the Crisis Center directly.
|04.04.19, two women leave messages of hope on the skyway.
|12.21.22: Why Is It So Easy to Jump Off a Bridge?
12.21.22, theatlantic.com, Better design could prevent so many suicides. By Charley Burlock
New York City’s High Line was not always high. For nearly a century, freight trains ran directly alongside traffic, carrying food to Lower Manhattan—and killing pedestrians, more than 540 from 1846 to 1910. Eleventh Avenue in those days was known as "Death Avenue." The cargo train that cut through the neighborhood was nicknamed "The Butcher," and many of its victims were children who crossed the tracks to bring dinner to their fathers at work in the factories and meatpacking plants. Only when the trains were moved onto elevated tracks in 1934 did the rail line begin to lose its association with death.
The High Line was abandoned in 1980, then reclaimed as a public walkway in 2009. Today, it ends in Hudson Yards, the largest private development in the United States. Among its many features are several skyscrapers, a mall, and an arts center, but its crown jewel is the Vessel, a 150-foot nest of staircases frequently likened to a honeycomb, gleaming rose gold and leading nowhere but up. The mall’s developer paid an estimated $200 million for the structure, likely in the hopes that tourists would wander from the architectural spectacle into Lululemon or Aritzia.
When renderings of the Vessel’s design were first released, The New York Times predicted that the structure would form an "exclamation point" at the end of the High Line, an exuberant finale to a peaceful stroll. But today, the Vessel would be far better described as a period. It opened in 2019, but the upper floors have been closed to the public since July 2021.
I visited for the first time in October 2021. Aluminum crowd-control gates enclosed the structure, but I could see two guards inside pacing around, sliding along the railings, and recording each other doing TikTok dances. I approached and asked why the Vessel was closed, and was told that work was being done on the elevators; it would open by Thanksgiving. When I inquired again two months later, I got a vaguer response: closed for maintenance. In April, guards were herding visitors into the atrium of the Vessel but telling them to go no further. "The top is closed," shouted one guard. "Take all the photos you want. But the top is closed."
I went back this month to find the Vessel covered in Christmas lights. The entrances to the stairways had been sealed off with black plywood. Some visitors leaned against the barriers, looking up. "Can you climb it or what?" a man carrying a Uniqlo shopping bag asked his companion.
I repeated his question to a guard outside. "Honey, you can’t," she told me. "It’s been closed since last year. They’re modifying it."
"Why is it closed?" I asked.
"They’re modifying it," she said again.
"Why are they modifying it?"
She paused and met my eyes. "I don’t know."
The truth is that the Vessel is closed because, for the brief stretch that it was open, four people jumped to their death from its staircases.
After its first suicide, the Vessel closed early for the day. After its second, it closed for a few hours; after its third, it closed for four months. Since the deaths began, activists and the local community board have been lobbying the developers to add architectural interventions: permanent barriers and higher guardrails.
The interventions required to reduce suicides by jumping are, thankfully, straightforward. A Swiss study in 2017 found that nets beneath bridges reduce suicide attempts by 77 percent, and that barriers along their edges reduce suicides by 69 percent. It may be surprising that they work so well—if a person were hell-bent on taking his life, wouldn’t he find another way?—but suicide is often an impulsive act. A 2021 study found that nearly three-quarters of those who were hospitalized following a suicide attempt reported that they had made the decision to end their life within three hours of the attempt. More than a third had decided less than five minutes before. One man who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge left a note on the railing: "Why do you make it so easy?"
Fewer people die by suicide when it’s harder to die by suicide. When Britain gradually eliminated carbon monoxide from its public gas supply in the 1960s and ’70s, the rate of suicide by self-asphyxiation didn’t just go down; the overall suicide rate dropped by 35 percent, suggesting that getting the most obvious method out of the home may have gotten suicide in general out of the minds of many people.
If a man wakes up intent on ending his life and finds a fence dividing him from an easy death, he will have to make a new plan. He might not have the energy. He might go home instead. He might go to sleep. He might wake up the next morning and the morning after that—a whole lifetime of days strung together.
Suicide-reduction architecture, as I’ve come to call it, demonstrably saves lives, and yet no standards or guidelines address it. If a bridge or a building is the site of a suicide—or worse, if it becomes a known destination for people seeking to take their life—barriers are generally considered as a last resort. If implemented, the design is often described euphemistically as a "safety net" or an "attractive security membrane." The goal is almost always to make these barriers as unobtrusive as possible. No developer wants to fund a multimillion-dollar public work that calls to mind the image of someone plunging to their death.
When the Vessel reopened to the public in May 2021, after four months of community-board meetings, no architectural changes had been made. But new policies had been put in place. Visitors weren’t allowed inside on their own; individuals were paired off with other tourists. A sign beside the guard station provided information about the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Entry had been free but now cost $10, which helped pay for a threefold increase in security.
It wasn’t enough. Two months after the reopening, a 14-year-old boy entered the honeycomb with his family. He chased his sister up the reflective stairs, laughing, dodging tourists, and ignoring a guard’s warnings to slow down. When he reached the eighth level, he climbed the rose-gold banister and jumped to his death.
That boy, the fourth and last person to jump from the Vessel, was also the youngest. The oldest was 24. Since 2007, the suicide rate among 10-to-24 year-olds has risen sharply. Young people tend to die by suicide for different reasons than older adults. They are much more likely to fatally harm themselves in response to a single, traumatic event, rather than a persistent state of anguish.
Although the Vessel was built on private property with private dollars, its designer, Thomas Heatherwick, insisted that it was for the public. In a podcast interview that aired in February 2021, Heatherwick declared that his creation "must be free in the same way that it’s free to walk in Central Park or free to walk on the High Line." He said that the Vessel was never meant to be viewed only from the outside, that it wouldn’t be complete until it was filled with visitors.
In an interview with The Daily Beast in July 2021, Stephen Ross, the billionaire founder of the Related Companies, which co-developed Hudson Yards, suggested that the Vessel may never fully reopen. Ever since, I’ve been struggling to understand the developers’ inaction and secrecy. Why would Hudson Yards and Heatherwick sacrifice so much of their vision for what the Vessel was meant to be rather than adapting its architecture to make it safe?
The head of media at Heatherwick’s studio declined a request for an interview. When I asked a spokesperson for Hudson Yards whether suicide barriers are being considered, he offered the following statement: "We continue to test and evaluate solutions that would allow us to reopen the staircases so that everyone can fully enjoy the unique experiences Vessel provides." And indeed, in August, Eyewitness News reported that the Vessel was testing "some sort of safety netting" under the stairs. But it’s unclear whether any measures have been undertaken since.
More broadly: Why do certain places become magnets for deliberate death in the first place? Why don’t we have a protocol for dealing with such sites, for amending their architecture, for making them safe?
The Golden Gate Bridge is the most popular site for suicide in the Western Hemisphere. I grew up in San Francisco, crossing the bridge twice a day to attend school in the hills of Marin County. The longer you live near it, the more likely you are to know people who’ve jumped from it.
One was beautiful, impulsive, 18. He dated one of my close friends. He was missing for two weeks before his body was recovered from the Bay.
When I was a small child, Kevin Hines, a 19-year-old enrolled at the City College of San Francisco, skipped class to kill himself. He sobbed openly as he rode the bus to the Golden Gate and paced the walkway for 40 minutes, having made a pact with himself that if anyone asked him what was wrong, he would "tell them everything." No one did.
We know that because the four-second fall didn’t kill Kevin. That made him unusual: The fall kills nearly everyone who jumps. But what didn’t make him unusual was that he, like almost every other jumper who somehow made it to shore, was grateful. A 1978 study of hundreds of people who’d jumped but survived from 1937 to 1971 found that 94 percent were still living or had died of natural causes.
Suicide has haunted the Golden Gate Bridge for its entire 85-year history. In August 1937, just 10 weeks after its opening, a World War I veteran walked onto the bridge and told a passerby, "This is as far as I go." The movement for a barrier can be traced back to February 1939, when the California Highway Patrol asked the bridge district to take action to address what was rapidly becoming, in the words of one reporter, "a Mecca for despondent persons seeking self-destruction." No action was taken. Over the next 30 years, district officials commissioned at least three separate studies of suicide barriers but ultimately ignored or rejected all of their recommendations.
In 1976, Roger Grimes started walking back and forth over the pedestrian walkway with a sign begging passersby: Please Care. Support a Suicide Barrier. He eventually gave up, Tad Friend wrote in The New Yorker, not because of the tedium or the weather, but because of the hostility. Drivers pelted him with soda cans. Joggers urged him to jump.
Neighborhood groups have cited aesthetic objections and the (unsupported) assumption that would-be jumpers will simply find another means to end their life. Bicycle coalitions have complained that netting would ruin the vistas of their morning rides. Online, there’s been a persistent digital chorus of Let them jump.
In his New Yorker article, titled "Jumpers," which came out in 2003, Friend suggested that the "lack of empathy for the depressed" was surprising in "an area as famously liberal as San Francisco, where you can always find a constituency for a view that pets should be citizens or that poison oak has a right to exist."
As a sixth-generation San Franciscan, I am a little less shocked. The resistance to suicide barriers doesn’t strike me as a bizarrely un-Californian refusal to acknowledge the humanity of the mentally ill. It strikes me as typical of San Francisco’s many failures to relieve, or take responsibility for, individual suffering—much less to build that responsibility into the landscape of the city. San Francisco has been notoriously resistant to investment in low-income housing, opting instead to crowd its enormous unhoused population in tents enclosed by chain-link fences. The city’s appearance is a point of pride for those who can afford it, and maintaining that appearance tends to trump any facade of compassionate politics.
Dayna Whitmer, who serves on the board of the barrier-advocacy organization BridgeRail, has taken it upon herself to respond to the online vitriol. "A lot of times," she told me, "people just don’t understand the facts." She scrolls through comments and tries to educate them. What sorts of comments does she see? Oh, you know: "Let’s put in a diving board; let’s make them pay for it."
Whitmer joined BridgeRail in 2008, after her 20-year-old son, Matthew, leapt from the bridge to his death. Matthew didn’t leave a note, but he did leave a computer search history. He had visited the district’s page to see if barriers were in place—a small amount of money had recently been earmarked for a project to explore adding them. They were not. Next, he looked up directions to the Golden Gate. His body was never recovered.
After decades of debate and roughly 2,000 deaths, work on the Golden Gate Suicide Deterrent Net System is under way. Construction began in 2018 and is expected to be completed in late 2023, almost three years behind schedule.
What changed? Paolo Cosulich-Schwartz, the director of public affairs for the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, told me, "There’s not one point" that you can pin the decision on, but rather "many factors, many families." It was a response to the shifting understanding of suicide as a public-health issue rather than an individual failure, the gradual weight of so many deaths, the pressure of grieving relatives showing up at every single one of the district’s monthly board meetings demanding that something be done.
Now, every weeknight, the Golden Gate Bridge’s six lanes narrow to three. Cranes lower building materials over the edge, where midnight steelworkers hang on suspended platforms, 200 feet above the Pacific.
You will only really see the barrier, a contractor on the project told me, if you are staring directly over the edge—or up from the water below. The nets are gray, camouflaged by the Bay. The beams that support them are painted International Orange, the same shade as the bridge itself.
Cosulich-Schwartz told me that a simple fence would have been much cheaper and easier to install. But cheaper and easier were not the primary goals. The district believes the project will cost $220 million, more than $75 million over the original construction budget. The contractors say that the total expense will be closer to $400 million.
The nets beneath the Golden Gate are composed of woven steel, thin to the point of transparency. Similar nets divide human spectators from zoo animals and prisoners from the outside world. They have been used at suicide hot spots in Switzerland and beneath the bridges spanning the gorges around Cornell University. An architect at Cornell who worked on the project suggested to me that a student could go four years and never notice them.
That may be the case. But in installing the nets, in 2013, Cornell was undertaking a risk, just as the city of San Francisco is now. In high school, I chose not to apply to Cornell because I knew it as "the suicide school." People are so miserable there, my friends and I would say, that they had to install nets under their bridges to keep their students from offing themselves. Cornell is far from the only college that has faced a crisis of student suicides. But the addition of the nets brought a new round of national attention to the problem.
Many San Franciscans do not want the Golden Gate Bridge to become a similar symbol of suicide. But for those living near it, it already is. A 2009 study found that more than 80 percent of those who died beneath the bridge had lived in its immediate vicinity. With or without nets, the bridge will always be a reminder of the people who jumped from it.
Dereck Revington has lived for four decades in Toronto, regularly driving across the Prince Edward Viaduct, a 131-foot bridge over two rail lines and the dregs of the Don River. It was once the most fatal standing structure in Canada; by the late ’90s, someone was jumping to their death from the bridge every 22 days on average.
In 1998, Toronto’s city council announced a design competition, calling for barriers that would provide both public safety and public art. Designing a barrier that would keep people safe wasn’t the hard part, Revington told me. "There’s no difficulty in establishing a secure edge between life and death in the physical sense," he said. But he was inspired by the philosophical and artistic challenges of the project. He also has a personal connection to the issue, having successfully intervened in the attempted suicide of a family member when he was a child.
His winning proposal for the barrier consisted of two layers of stainless-steel rods—thousands of them—strung to the balustrades on each side of the bridge, forming a 16-foot gate between the sidewalk and the fall. These rods are outfitted with 35,000 LED lights, which produce an ever-changing light show. The lights are digitally programmed to "translate local environmental conditions" into "ghostlike" undulating patterns—they respond to changes in wind speed, temperature, and season. I’ve watched probably hours of videos of the fence on YouTube, mesmerized. The design is called the Luminous Veil.
Instead of trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, Revington’s design is dazzlingly conspicuous. But this carries its own dangers.
In my first semester of graduate school, I was white-knuckling my way through a debilitating depressive episode and studying daily in New York University’s Bobst Library. The library is designed like a box. Its 12 stories form a perfect square around a marble-floored lobby, above which is 150 feet of vertical air. The atrium is enclosed in aluminum panels, randomly perforated and tinged with matte gold. I found the panels ugly but didn’t think much about them until I learned their purpose: Three students had died on the lobby floor in just over six years. Many more had watched them fall. Apparently, four groups of prospective students filed through that lobby mere hours after the final suicide, oblivious.
Every time my eyes slipped from my blank Word document to the barrier, I imagined those tours. I would see college hopefuls walking over their own reflections in the freshly polished marble. I would see blood. I would see bodies falling, limbs windmilling until they didn’t. Often, these limbs were my own. Thoughts of suicide began to pour over my brain. I found another place to work.
Studies have repeatedly shown that suicide is contagious. I can’t find any reports of suicides in Bobst Library from the first 30 years of its existence. But after one student jumped in late 2003, another followed just four weeks later (he had taken psilocybin, and his death was ruled an accident). A third jumped not from the banister but from the narrow wall of clear plastic that campus safety had screwed into the backs of the railings and stairways—a precursor to the metal cage.
People go to surprising lengths to be part of a particular suicide community. A common reason given for choosing to die at the Golden Gate, as articulated by a research participant who made the attempt, is "you’re with all those people who jumped before." Sensitive to this phenomenon, some people fear that a conspicuous barrier can draw even more attention to the problem it’s addressing, perhaps encouraging at-risk people to find a way around it.
But Revington thinks the greater danger lies in trying to pretend that the problem doesn’t exist. "The circumstances behind suicidal impulses don’t go away simply because you prevent someone from jumping off a bridge," he told me, sounding almost exasperated. Barriers buy a suffering person time, but they don’t stop the suffering.
Revington likened the movement of light across the steel balustrades to ripples across the skin of a lake. Sometimes a storm comes up and the light dances with an ominous energy. But the storm passes. He wanted a design that "resonated with the tragedy of this place." He does not call it a barrier. I asked him if he thought of it as a memorial, and he did not hesitate: "Yes."
Revington understands the impulse to edit suffering out of our environment. But he knows grief is built into the infrastructure of our lives. We may cross it every day, but we never get over it.
New Mexico’s suicide rate is nearly double the national average and has been for decades. In 2014, a 23-year-old Taos local named Cooper Beacom climbed over a 47-inch railing on the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge and leapt. His mother and younger brother watched him jump; the decision seemed spontaneous.
Anette Meertens, a landscape architect and designer in Taos, knew Beacom’s mother, and started working with an advocacy group she had founded to think about ways to make the bridge safer. Meertens had been shocked by the young man’s suicide, both by the loss and by the ease of it, how he could place his hand on the railing and, in an instant, flip right over to his death. "We design our way through many, many, many dangerous conditions," Meertens told me. People’s lives are saved daily by the little bit of yellow paint that runs down the spine of a highway. She began drawing up sketches in her free time.
Unlike Toronto, which voted to build a suicide barrier and held a contest for designs, Taos was not searching for an architectural solution to the Gorge Bridge. Meerteens was essentially working on spec, hoping that the New Mexico Department of Transportation would be compelled by her plan. It is, to be sure, an unusual one.
Meertens wants to eliminate the metal railing that currently separates the sidewalk from the drop. She wants to replace it with a wall of thin steel mesh, stretching concave toward the sidewalk so as to make climbing it virtually impossible. The bridge would be secure, but Meertens doesn’t want it to feel that way. She hopes to use the netting to exaggerate, rather than obscure, the bridge’s threat.
Like Revington, she wants her design to put the reality of the fall in the mind of every individual on the bridge. The point is not to force the community to encounter the history of suicide—"there isn’t a single person in the younger generation who doesn’t know that that bridge is about death," Meertens told me—but to force people to encounter their own mortality. Standing at its edge, divided from bodily destruction by a web as thick as the average flea is long, you might contemplate the moment of impact. You might notice the trees on the valley floor, shrunken by the distance. You might feel the heft of gravity, your own heart suddenly flapping against your rib cage. These sensations might shock you out of your psychological pain and back into your fragile body. Encountering the sensation of danger in the built environment is rare and, Meertens thinks, healthy. Danger, she believes, "helps you be careful."
The transportation department was less than enthusiastic about Meertens’s design. There was concern that someone might cut a hole in the steel wiring and climb through into the empty air. That concern did not goad the department into implementing another design, however. Two to three people, on average, continue to jump over the four-foot railing annually. As it stands now, the bridge doesn’t just feel dangerous—it is dangerous.
It has been four decades since a train ran down the High Line.
Before the architecture was changed, people saved people from the Eleventh Avenue cargo trains. Not just people. Cowboys. Waving red flags by day and red lanterns at night, men on horseback cut through the thicket of meandering schoolchildren, hollering vegetable vendors, weaving bicyclists, and stray dogs in advance of the rushing freight.
Perhaps there is a lesson in this, something about the power of individuals to fill in the gaps that institutions leave open. There is a bridge over China’s Yangtze River in Nanjing that for years killed at least one person a week. One man—Chen Si—crosses that bridge nearly every weekend, and has for 13 years. He has stopped more than 400 people from jumping. He has been profiled by GQ, This American Life, and The New York Times, and in 2015 was the subject of a feature film. The bridge itself has garnered considerably less attention.
Chen’s is a story we can all get behind: one that emphasizes individual heroism rather than the collective failures that made such heroism necessary. But the Yangtze River Bridge is almost a mile long, and Chen is one man. How many more lives could be saved with a net?
The West Side Cowboys saved lives on Death Avenue for more than 80 years. But it was still Death Avenue. There was nothing to divide the train tracks from the horse-drawn carriages, cars, and vegetable carts, from the zigzagging commutes of hundreds of children bound for school and factories mass-producing everything from chocolate to razor blades. It was, perhaps, the single most congested stretch of Manhattan. In the dark of November, December, and January, the trains killed an average of three children a month.
In 1908, a 7-year-old boy named Seth Low Hascamp died on the tracks. Nothing made his death markedly different from the many that came before, but it was a breaking point. Five hundred of his peers took to the streets in protest. They marched in the dark, night after night along the tracks, together. They spread banners and beat drums. They lit the way with fireworks.
The children didn’t propose a solution; they probably could not have imagined a pedestaled train line running a mile and a half through the sky. But they illuminated the tracks.
Their protests on Death Avenue lasted weeks. The bureaucratic battle over a new railroad design lasted years. The tracks stayed in place for another three decades until eventually, finally, they rose.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, please know that you are not alone. If you are in danger of acting on suicidal thoughts, call 911. For support and resources, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line.
|05.27.22: article - suicides have dropped dramatically.
|03.10.21: article - skyway bridge suicide barrier may finally stop the ripples of loss.
|01.09.20: suicide barrier to be installed on the skyway.
|05.25.18: How a Public Suicide Harms the People Who See It
05.25.18, theatlantic.com, For unwitting bystanders, the experience can be traumatic.
One evening last March, Nancy Bacon saw a stranger die. She had just touched down in Toronto and set off for a business meeting, chatting on her phone as she navigated the rush-hour traffic of the financial district. She was jaywalking, hurrying across a particularly busy street, when a fire extinguisher seemed to fall from the sky, smashing to the ground just a few feet away from her.
"I was actually annoyed," she says. Her first thought was that some mischievous kid had thrown the extinguisher through a window high above. But when she lifted her gaze, Bacon’s annoyance turned to horror. What she witnessed next would haunt her for months. "I saw the guy falling," she says. "I saw him hit the ground."
Bacon looked on as the police arrived and attempted CPR. She noticed that the man’s shoe had come off.
A suicide can be dangerous to those closest to the victim, leaving family and friends vulnerable to depression and self-harm. When the act is committed in public, any incidental observers are left to grapple with it, too. While studies on witnessing strangers’ suicide are scarce, a small body of research—alongside a larger body of anecdotes—has begun to show that the experience can be damaging, even traumatic.
Each year in the United States, approximately 45,000 people kill themselves. There’s little data on how many of these suicides occur in public view, and even less on how many people witness them when they do. One study analyzed all completed suicides in Riverside County, California, from 1998 to 2001, and estimated that around 17 percent took place in public places, like roads, railways, and fields. Another study, from 1994, reviewed forensic reports of 1,183 suicides among people affiliated with the U.S. Air Force and found that 4 percent were committed in the presence of at least one other person.
Ashley Tate Hatton was studying for her Ph.D. at the California School of Professional Psychology when she saw the controversial documentary The Bridge, about people who leap from San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Watching the victims fall—even on camera—Hatton felt queasy, complicit. When it came time to choose a subject for her dissertation, she decided to study the effects of witnessing suicide in real life. She posted ads around campus and online, and to her surprise, soon found a small group of people who had seen strangers take (or attempt to take) their own lives.
"I thought it was a long shot," she says. She hadn’t realized how common an experience it was. "I didn’t have to travel outside of Southern California—I was prepared for that."
Three of Hatton’s subjects had seen people jump from bridges, three from a building; two had seen people shoot themselves; three had seen people step in front of vehicles. One of the subjects, a man in his 50s, was waiting for a bus when a young man threw himself in the path of an oncoming van. For the next several days, the onlooker thought about it constantly. He became obsessed with the precariousness of life, and told Hatton that he began to feel as though "every second could be [his] last." When she met him three years later, she found that he no longer ruminated incessantly about the memory, but he still dreamed about it from time to time. He told her he had become a more cautious driver; he worried about running someone over.
All but one of Hatton’s subjects said that they considered the experience traumatic, and one, according to Hatton, met the criteria for chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. (Those who had been more involved—who had called 911 or tried to talk the victim down from the ledge—tended to be more affected.) Nine of the 10 said that pictures about the event popped into their minds; six admitted they thought about it without meaning to; three had physical reactions when they were reminded of the event, including sweating, nausea, and trouble breathing. Eight said that the experience had a significant impact on their lives, including one who started volunteering at the Red Cross, and two who resolved not to act on their own suicidal fantasies.
Hatton’s sample was small, and people who would sign up for her study were probably more shaken than average. "When you have only a few people who experienced something, you have no idea how representative they are," points out George Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology and the director of the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab at Columbia University. Still, projects like Hatton’s are a start. "There’s surprisingly little research on the nuances of different traumatic events," Bonanno says.
Last spring, a young man leapt from the building next to the one I was in. I didn’t see him jump, but I heard him land; I thought it was a clap of thunder. A woman I was interviewing in that moment gasped, so I turned and followed her gaze. I can still see the scene outside the window: an empty pair of pants dangling over the ledge of the low roof that had broken his fall, a human arm sticking out an unnatural angle. I heard the man moaning, and I saw a woman who appeared to be his mother crying in the street, reaching up to touch his foot. I didn’t know what to do; I felt useless as other members of the lab ran out with a ladder to help the woman reach her son.
That evening, I violated Amtrak’s noise policy by crying on the Quiet Car. I had violent nightmares: that a teenager was teetering on a ledge; that an acquaintance was threatening to jump in front of a train. I talked with friends about what I’d seen. I spent an afternoon trying to find out whether the man had lived. I gave up, the dreams faded, and I don’t think about it much anymore. The memory remains clear, upsetting even, but I wouldn’t call it traumatic.
Teresa Lopez-Castro, an assistant professor of psychology at City College of New York, emphasizes that most people who experience or witness trauma don’t go on to develop PTSD, even if—as I did—they experience distress in the weeks or month following the trauma. She pointed to a comprehensive 1995 study that found more than half of adults in the United States reported being exposed to a potentially traumatic event at some point in their lives, but only about 5 percent of men and 10 percent of women ultimately develop PTSD. Nonetheless, Lopez-Castro notes, "witnessing the violent death of a person—whether it be a stranger or a loved one—certainly carries the potential for causing psychological distress, and places the individual at risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder."
Bacon, the woman who witnessed the suicide in Toronto, always thought of herself as tough. She has traveled, mostly by herself, to 66 countries; she has been nipped in the ribs by a lion. But the day after seeing a stranger fall to his death, she walked around the city in a daze. "I thought every single person I passed was going to kill me," she says, even though she recognized this as "a completely irrational fear."
When she got home, she began combing through Toronto obituaries. She hoped that learning more about the stranger would help her process what she had seen, but she never definitively found the right person. She made her first-ever appointment with a psychologist. And she talked about it with whoever would listen. "There is not a single friend, client, colleague, 7-Eleven employee" who didn’t hear about it, she says. (Hatton—who’s now a clinical psychologist specializing in PTSD—says that sharing the experience is a "very important" part of recovery.)
Still, Bacon suffered from nightmares and night terrors for weeks. "I was kicking and tossing and turning so much I ripped the sheets off my bed," she says. She never used to lock her doors at night; now, more than a year later, she says she bolts both her front and bedroom doors.
The experience has changed how she relates to others and how she thinks about mental health. She started donating to suicide hotlines, and she’s become more proactive about reaching out to friends who are struggling. "If I see a negative post or even a drunk post on Facebook or Twitter, I don’t ask them if they need help," she says. "I go to them."
|01.10.18: attorney blog - Increase in Skyway Suicides Bring Awareness to Liability Issues
01.10.18, usalaw.com, The Sunshine Skyway is one of the most impressive sights in Tampa Bay. Passing through the waters of Pinellas, Hillsborough, and Manatee counties, the bridge is 430 feet tall and spans four miles across. This makes it a perfect place to catch a stunning view of the breathtaking scenery and sparkling waters. Even Floridians who hate heights— and those who remember the horror of the original bridge’s collapse in 1980 - can probably admit that the bridge is part of our iconic landscape. At the very least, it is a convenient way to get across the bay.
But the Sunshine Skyway can also be a place of darkness. Last year, 13 people died by jumping off the bridge, making 2017 the worst year for bridge suicides since 2003. (worst year for jumper activity in general since the bridge opened.)
Suicide in Tampa Bay and Beyond
In 2017, twelve people committed suicide by jumping from the Sunshine Skyway. A thirteenth death is unconfirmed. The victims include a 64-year-old man, a 55-year-old husband, and a 28-year-old man, potentially racked with guilt over his involvement in a fatal crash. Only five of the deaths were women. This is on par with national statistics, which report that men are 3.57 times more likely than women to die by suicide.
Across the nation, suicide is a major issue. It is the 10th leading cause of death, with 44,965 Americans dying every year. It affects people of all ages, genders, and races. But certain groups, like middle aged white men, LGBT+ youth, and people struggling with substance abuse, are more prone to suicide.
Lawsuit over Sunshine Skyway Death
As these statistics show, Tampa Bay is far from the only place in the United States with a suicide issue. But in the face of this recent rash of suicides, some Tampa Bay residents want to see changes. One victim’s widow is even taking legal action to draw attention to the topic of suicide in Tampa Bay. Two days before her husband jumped from the Sunshine Skyway in 2017, he was released from a local hospital. He had been committed by the Baker Act after a previous suicide attempt. His wife is now suing the hospital. She believes that it was negligent to release him so quickly, considering his previous attempt and mental state.
This case is unique. However, it’s not the first time a medical provider has been accused in a patient’s suicide. In 2008, a lawsuit over a Florida woman’s suicide was brought to the Florida Supreme Court. There, it was found that her doctor’s failure to see her, even after being informed that the patient had stopped taking her medications, played a role in her death.
Determining a Doctor’s Role
Determining negligence for a patient’s suicide can be a nuanced topic. But like in any other case involving a medical provider’s liability, there must be proof that:
• A doctor-patient relationship existed
• The medical professional violated the standard of care
• The patient suffered harm
• The violation directly caused the patient’s harm
Suicide is often a complex topic, and never an easy one. When a case involves trying to hold someone else, like a medical provider, liable for a loved one’s suicide, it becomes even more complex, although it is still important to seek justice, compensation, and answers. While 2017 might have been a bad year for Tampa Bay area suicides from the Sunshine Skyway, there is still hope that critical topics, like the role of medical providers in a patient’s suicide, will be addressed in 2018.
If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts or ideation or know someone who needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
(curious if a case could be made against an entity, that created a structure that is a known and accepted draw for suicides, then doing squat little in an attempt to stop them. #calltoaction more suicide prevention help.)
|01.09.18: Could netting prevent suicides on Sunshine Skyway Bridge?
01.09.18, wfla.com, PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla., Two of America’s iconic bridges, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the George Washington Bridge in New York, are undergoing major changes.
Both projects include the addition of a unique netting to help prevent suicides. Safety netting is being added along the outer edges of both high-span bridges.
The changes have News Channel 8 wondering about the possibility of one day seeing safety netting added to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, where three (correction: 13) people ended their lives by suicide in 2017 and 12 others committed suicide in 2016, according to The Florida Highway Patrol.
If there were to be any structural changes to the Skyway, they’d come through Florida’s Department of Transportation.
So, we reached out to FDOT to ask about the possibility.
The organization quickly responded and we learned a safety net concept is something the agency has reviewed before. "The safety of the traveling public on the state’s bridges is a top priority of the Florida Department of Transportation. The department has looked at a fencing system on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the past, however, FDOT has not found a system that would work and also allow inspection of the bridge."
Adding more weight to each side of the bridge could possibly create instability for the mega structure.
One safety feature that’s helped save lives and has been in place for many years are the 24-hour emergency phones mounted at the top of each span.
Just by picking up one of those phones, that person will immediately be connected to a caring counselor at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay. "If they’re having thoughts of suicide and they’re aware that a resource is available and they will not be judged and somebody will speak to them and care about them. It’s very successful," says Ken Gibson with the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay. (if the suicidal uses the phone. most do not.)
If you, or anyone you know, is feeling desperate and just needs someone to talk to, simply dial 211. That will connect you to the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay’s full time staff of sincere and compassionate counselors.
(this barrier would work. it hinges for inspections and deters jumpers. #calltoaction)
|01.08.18: Skyway suicides may have hit 15-year-high
01.08.18, tampabay.com, By Jonathan Capriel, Times Staff Writer,
A few left their driver door open and motor running. One man pocketed his keys. Another wore a Superman T-shirt when he plunged nearly 200 feet into the mouth of Tampa Bay. One woman may have taken her dog with her. Another person wrote "sorry" and "time to go."
An average of once a month last year, people committed suicide by falling from the Sunshine Skyway bridge, and authorities are trying to determine whether a 13th person also died that way.
Not since 2003 have 13 people fallen to their deaths from the Skyway. In the years since then, at least 130 more followed, according to information provided by the Florida Highway Patrol and medical examiners offices in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Manatee counties.
The last man to drop in 2017 was William Robeysek, 64, the morning after Thanksgiving, his family said. Troopers found his car on the bridge. A boater found his body on the first Sunday of December on an island about 5 miles west of there. Dental records showed it was him, but authorities await test results.
"I miss him terribly," said Ashley Stevens, 65, his girlfriend of 13 years. "I have no idea why he would leave me."
Robeysek was unmarried, had no children and was recently placed on disability benefits. He didn’t leave a note.
• • •
Most last year did not leave notes. Those who did left many questions unanswered.
The first to fall in 2017 died a year ago Friday. David Prior, then 55, worked as an investment adviser and had two children and a wife. Debra Prior, 53, said she and her teenage daughter suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and avoid the bridge.
Her husband left a note, but she still doesn’t know why he chose the Skyway.
"Maybe he thought it would be the fastest way to go," she said. "He used to jump out of planes in the army. He was a Green Beret Ranger."
Two days before he went off the Skyway, David Prior was released from St. Anthony’s Hospital, where he had been committed under the Baker Act after slitting his wrists, his wife said. She’s suing the hospital, alleging negligence.
Therapists have told Debra Prior not to attempt to figure out why he killed himself.
"We are never going to know what was in his mind," she said.
• • •
Most suicide is a solitary act, often by gunshot or strangulation, said Frederic Desmond, a professor of psychology at the University of Florida. Falling from a high platform is less common.
A public suicide attempt may be a last chance to reach out for human contact.
"It could also be a last-minute cry for help," he said. "They might hope that someone driving will stop them."
Clara Reynolds, CEO of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, avoids publicly discussing Skyway suicides because she doesn’t want to plant ideas in anyone’s head.
"We want to have open conversations about why people contemplate suicide and we need it to be more socially acceptable for people to reach out," she said.
The center gets thousands of calls each year from people contemplating suicide. A small percentage of suicides are from the Skyway, less than 3 percent in 2016.
Special phones installed on the bridge in 1996 (correction: 1999) connect directly to the Crisis Center, but in 2017, only "silent calls" came through. The people on the bridge did not speak.
"They might be trying to make a last-minute connection with someone," Reynolds said. "It could be that they want someone to know they are up there."
When someone uses one of those phones, the center’s staff alerts authorities. Officers stop at least five suicide attempts each year on the bridge. On Tuesday, a Pinellas deputy used his vehicle to pin a woman’s leg to the side of the concrete barrier, preventing her from throwing herself over. After he handcuffed her, she continued to say, "Let me jump, let me jump," the deputy said.
Five of the deaths in 2017 were women.
• • •
Experts say suicide doesn’t solve problems, and often hurts those left behind.
In May, Pinellas Park police charged Ryan Mogensen in the hit-and-run death of a motorcyclist, 61-year-old John Ryan.
In June, Mogensen pleaded not guilty, but the case never went to trial.
On a dark night in July, he leaped off the Skyway bridge. He was 28.
The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office formally abandoned the case.
A medical examiner’s report describes a suicide note Mogensen posted on Facebook. He called himself a veteran and said he had been charged with a crime. He wrote that he loved his family and apologized to them.
When John Ryan’s wife, Rosamme Ryan, 54, found out that Mogensen had killed himself, she initially took solace in the idea that he could not hurt anyone else, she said. But in the months since police found his body, her attitude has shifted.
"That night, it felt like justice," she said. "But the further away I get from it, I realize I’m never going to face him. I can never ask him why he hit my husband."
• Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to be connected to local crisis counselors.
• Reach out to trusted friends or family members and talk to them.
• Find a therapist or support group. A good starting point is to call 2-1-1.
(more suicide help links and services. seek them out and use them.)
2017 was not simply a 15 year high, but an all-time high, considering all the jumper activity, as compared to 2003.
2017: 13 suicides, 29 possible, 1 survivor, 4 saves
2003: 13 suicides, 1 possible, 4 saves
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