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Selectmen look for help to stem French King Bridge suicides

  • The French King Bridge spaning the Connecticut River from Erving to Gill at the confluence of the Millers River is a often the last stop for despondent people. Recorder/Paul Franz

    The French King Bridge spaning the Connecticut River from Erving to Gill at the confluence of the Millers River is a often the last stop for despondent people. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »

  • The view down, about 140 feet, from the French King Bridge. Recorder/Paul Franz

    The view down, about 140 feet, from the French King Bridge. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »

  • The French King Bridge approx 140 feet over the Connecticut River. Recorder/Paul Franz

    The French King Bridge approx 140 feet over the Connecticut River. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »

  • The French King Bridge spaning the Connecticut River from Erving to Gill at the confluence of the Millers River is a often the last stop for despondent people. Recorder/Paul Franz
  • The view down, about 140 feet, from the French King Bridge. Recorder/Paul Franz
  • The French King Bridge approx 140 feet over the Connecticut River. Recorder/Paul Franz

According to rough figures gleaned from The Recorder’s newspaper’s archives, a minimum of 30 people have killed themselves in jumping from the French King Bridge since its construction in 1932, two this year. Troubled by the continued loss of life and the danger to local police and firefighters rushing to recover the bodies or rescue survivors, Gill Selectboard Chairman Randy Crochier is leading a push for safety measures.

In addition to the dead, at least five people have survived suicide attempts or misguided thrill jumps from the bridge.

The bridge has no fence, no netting, no suicide hotline signs or phones, as are employed elsewhere in the state, the country and the world with problem bridges.

Crochier wants a fence installed on or under the state-owned span between Gill and Erving, and, with the backing of his board and state Rep. Denise Andrews, is seeking a meeting with the Department of Transportation. The Erving Board of Selectmen this week accepted the Gill board’s invitation to join the discussion, a representative to be decided once the meeting is scheduled.

Crochier began the effort as a private citizen, later getting his board’s backing, and is motivated partly by his son’s experience as a former Gill firefighter.

Crochier said he began to worry the first time his son had to be sent out to the middle of the river, at night and in bad conditions.

“It kind of concerned me then, and I’ve thought about it a lot since, and it’s my second time as chair and I decided now is the time I’m going to at least start trying to talk about it,” he said.

Not going in after people isn’t an option, he said, and people jump in all weather and all seasons, when the Connecticut River is not its relatively placid summer self, and police speed to the scene.

“Sgt. (Christopher) Redmond has I believe been on our force for 23 years and has personally been involved with, I think, 18 fatalities off that bridge,” Crochier said. “As much as it’s suicide prevention, it’s also to protect the life of the people that have to go in afterward.”

Crochier said he isn’t a big advocate of the signs, but anything would help, and if expense is an objection he will point to the California Bay Area’s June decision to spend $76 million on anti-suicide fencing. “Really, the price of the fence is how much? Ask the mother how much her son’s life is worth, she’d probably say $76 million on the Golden Gate Bridge is a cheap price.”

Crochier wants a fence slung under the bridge, an approach he says can blend into the look of the bridge and is designed to give a little when someone lands in it, so they must be helped back up.

Dan Sontag, a Clinical and Support Options clinician and director of the nonprofit mental health agency’s Crisis Services hot line, said anything that will give someone pause can help.

Sontag said he isn’t sure how effective signs are in discouraging suicide, but disagreed with the often raised opinion that such acknowledgements encourage suicide.

“Seeing a sign or having a high bridge isn’t going to somehow trigger someone to try and take their life,” he said. “I do think though that anything that slows down or inhibits somebody to do something self-destructive is a good thing and can be lifesaving.”

The prevalence of cell phones means rescuers may already be en route, and a short pause could make a big difference.

The view that people who want to kill themselves will do so is also wrong, he said.

“Most suicides are committed I think by people with some degree of ambivalence. There are folks with a very high degree of suicidal resolve, and for those folks its harder to stop them …. but they’re really in the minority,” Sontag said.

Crochier said Andrews is arranging a meeting with the DOT in early August, and police and fire departments from both towns are working to compile numbers for the times they are called to the bridge, and the cost. “You don’t want to make everything about resources when it’s about human life, but it’s also about resources,” he said.

DOT spokesman Michael Verseckes wrote last week that the department decides such measures on a case-by-case basis at the request of town officials or law enforcement.

“In this case, for the French King Bridge, we have not received a request to examine the feasibility of installing fencing,” he wrote.

The department takes into consideration factors including the weight, wind resistance, historical accuracy or context sensitivity, and whether the fence would impede inspection equipment, Verseckes wrote.

“There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ rule of thumb and each request to install safety fencing is reviewed on a case-by-case basis,” Verseckes wrote.

You can reach Chris Curtis at: ccurtis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

My father was one of the 5 that survived

The people of California are trying to reverse that expenditure of money. It would seem that the people who want to jump will find another place or another way. We have a phone on the bridge and other barriers on the bridge where I live. Foresthill Bridge 50+ in 40 years. With a state strapped for money it seems putting the money in mental health would be a better investment. I would not want someone walking out in front of me driving or hanging themselves or any other way of coming to there demise. These are people who need help not a barrier to send them somewhere else. People still climb over the barriers on the Foresthill bridge and jump/fall to there death. It will still happen on the Golden Gate even if they do install another barrier. Recently the Brooklyn bridge was assaulted at night and flags were changed with security on the bridge. People who are determined will succeed. It is sad, but they will find a way to accomplish their task.

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