Suicide barriers in sight for French King Bridge

  • After years of requests by Gill and Erving, the state Department of Transportation is now taking steps to install barriers on the French King Bridge, a common site for suicides.  RECORDER/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 6/5/2019 10:59:19 PM

After multiple years of requests by Gill and Erving, the state is finally edging toward installing barriers on the French King Bridge.

The bridge connects the towns of Gill and Erving and is a well-known site for suicides.

Gill Police Chief Christopher Redmond said he has seen 20 people die by suicide at the bridge since he began working for the department in 1992. He estimated that two or three people die there each year. The police are called to the bridge at least three times a week to respond to a suicide threat, he added.

“It’s proven to be a popular place to commit suicide, so it should be addressed,” Redmond said.

The state Department of Transportation is holding a public hearing tonight at 6 p.m. at Springfield Library, 765 State St., to discuss its Capital Investment Plan for 2020 to 2024, with the bridge on the agenda.

Many steps still lie ahead: the state needs to appropriate money in its budget to fund design and construction. Erving Administrative Coordinator Bryan Smith said the barriers are set to cost between $2 and $3 million to construct.

The Transportation Department will accept public comments about the bridge among other capital projects on its website until June 10. The towns of Gill and Erving, as well as Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and Rep. Susannah Whipps, I-Athol, will submit comments to the state seeking funding for the barriers, Smith said.

According to preliminary designs, the new barriers would be about nine feet tall, Gill Town Administrator Ray Purington said. The current railing reaches about three feet, he said. The new barriers “mimic” the bridge’s design, Smith said.

Purington said the town first sought help from the state seven or eight years ago to stop suicides on the bridge. He said installing barriers is important as the bridge is “one of the top spots in the state where people go to end their lives.”

“It’s rewarding to see that finally some of these efforts are paying off,” Purington said. “It seems to be a glimmer of hope … Now we just need to keep the lobbying pressure to get the money.”

While Smith said the town understands the state has many requests and a process to follow, the region is “systematically working at this to expedite it as quickly as possible.

Steps have already been taken to increase safety on the bridge. About two years ago, surveillance cameras were installed, which helped to locate individuals who were acting in a suspicious manner, and determine the location of those suspected to have jumped, Smith said. This also means first responders avoided searching for suspects if they had not in fact jumped off the bridge, he said.

Local suicide prevention advocates have also expressed support for installing barriers on the French King Bridge. Jen Matoney, board chair of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Western Mass. chapter, contacted state representatives in support of the barriers. She also facilitates a Suicide Loss Support Group for those who have lost someone to suicide; the group meets at Baystate Franklin Medical Center on the second Monday of every month.

Matoney has a personal investment in this issue, she said, as her mother died by suicide in 2007 after jumping off a bridge out of state.

“I really don’t want any other families to go through the terrible pain and loss of losing someone to suicide,” Matoney said. “Your life is just forever changed when you lose someone that way. There’s so many questions and guilt and confusion and shock. I have a sister and a brother and my dad, we all miss my mom every single day. There’s always unanswered questions.”

Matoney said fencing can prevent suicides as putting an obstacle in the way can allow an individual to stop and seek help.

“When you have a bridge barrier, you can delay or deter someone, and give them time,” Matoney said. “It can allow time for others to intervene.”

Heather White, area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said she became involved in suicide prevention advocacy work when she developed post-partum depression following the birth of her first child.

“A few years ago, I almost lost my own life to post-partum depression and suicide,” White said. “I didn’t know enough about what I was going through at the time. I wasn’t educated on the resources. Thankfully, with the help of my husband and my pastor I got through that very scary and dangerous time. We recently had our second child, and it has been a world of difference knowing the resources that are available.”

White noted the time it has taken for the French King Bridge project to gain traction.

“It’s funny — if you had this sort of mortality rate on say, a stretch of highway, action would be taken immediately.”

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is holding its annual walk Sept. 29 at Greenfield’s Energy Park to raise awareness and money for research, education and advocacy efforts related to suicide prevention.

To submit a public comment on the French King Bridge barrier project, visit https://www.mass.gov/service-details/capital-investment-plan-cip.

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

Reach Grace Bird at gbird@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 280.




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