Gateway: Opinion

Tragic incidents on Narrows bridges can lead to community awareness

Members of both law enforcement and fire department marine services units were in and on the waters under the Tacoma Narrows bridges Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015 to recover the body of a male who jumped from the south side of the bridge into the water below.
Members of both law enforcement and fire department marine services units were in and on the waters under the Tacoma Narrows bridges Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015 to recover the body of a male who jumped from the south side of the bridge into the water below. Staff photographer

As a general rule, The Gateway and The News Tribune don’t cover suicides.

But when a suicide or suicide attempt becomes a public event — like a couple of incidents in Gig Harbor over the last few weeks — we published short stories because the incidents caused traffic backups and summoned first responders to arrive at the scene.

On a weekday morning earlier this month, the commute over the Narrows bridge came to a crawl after the Washington State Patrol shut down a single lane to come to the aid of a woman attempting to commit suicide by jumping off the bridge. Law enforcement officials were at the scene for about three hours, and eventually were able to talk her down.

“We’re very patient when someone is out there (attempting to jump),” Washington State Patrol spokesman Trooper Guy Gill said.

And just last week, rescue boats from various agencies were called to the waters underneath the bridge to retrieve the body of a man who jumped to his death.

The two incidents — both taking place on a very visible landmark dear to many on the peninsula — led me to wonder if the community and various agencies are doing enough to prevent tragedies like this from continuing to happen.

Would constructing higher fencing near places that have pedestrian access on the bridge help prevent suicide attempts? Would posting signage with the phone number of a national suicide prevention hotline help? Or even installing a special phone box with a line to call the prevention number?

Gig Harbor resident Bob Anderson, who helped start a local suicide prevention coalition and currently hosts a survivors group, thinks all three possible solutions couldn’t hurt the cause. Officials at the Washington State Department of Transportation, which owns and operates the bridge, know that the suicide prevention piece and the agency’s role in it is a complex issue.

“You can’t put a dollar value on a person’s life,” WSDOT spokeswoman Claudia Bingham Baker said.

As someone who drives over the bridge daily to get to Gig Harbor, there are days I’m mesmerized by the view. And it’s neat to see so many people walking, running or pushing strollers over the span on days when the sun is shining. Might adding extra fencing and signage take away from that?

Perhaps.

But we must also take into consideration the stigma the bridge might take on if it were to undergo specific projects designed to cut down on jumpers.

“There are different schools of thought when it comes to drawing attention. Some worry that signs or fencing could brand the bridge,” Bingham Baker said.

While those solutions could possibly save a life or prevent a jumper, there is no sure thing when it comes to suicide.

“It’s very difficult to stop a determined person,” Gill said.

One thing is certain: All of the entities involved say the focus needs to come back to bringing suicide awareness back into the conversation.

“There are no perfect solutions (to preventing suicide),” said Anderson, who lost his college-age son to suicide years ago. “But asking (someone) about it or talking about it doesn’t lead them to commit suicide, but to think twice.”

The public piece to the suicides and attempts on the bridge has an impact on a wide-ranging group: everyday commuters, WSDOT staff members, first responders and others reading about it in the paper or on the web.

“It’s hard on everyone involved — it affects everybody,” Gill said.

The challenge is turning the incident around and making it about outreach. Anderson is just one in a group of dedicated people in Gig Harbor working to raise awareness. He’s in the midst of trying to organize a suicide awareness walk.

On that walk’s route, he’s considering it crossing the Narrows bridge.

Tyler Hemstreet: 253-358-4150

tyler.hemstreet@gateline.com

@gateway_tyler

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