Legislators hear concerns on French King Bridge safety: ‘We’ve got to focus on life’

  • Government officials, first responders, mental health professionals and residents spoke during an online public comment session on Thursday about the need for safety barriers to help prevent suicides at the French King Bridge. STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • State Rep. Susannah Whipps, I-Athol, speaks in a public comment session on Thursday about the French King Bridge. SCREENSHOT

  • State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, speaks in a public comment session on Thursday about the French King Bridge. SCREENSHOT

Staff Writer
Published: 2/12/2021 5:52:08 PM

A public comment session on proposed safety barriers at the French King Bridge drew people from a variety of backgrounds, including local government officials, first responders, mental health professionals and residents. All said the bridge needs to be safer.

The online meeting Thursday night was hosted by state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and state Rep. Susannah Whipps, I-Athol, in anticipation of an announcement at the end of February from the state Department of Transportation (MassDOT) regarding the bridge.

Town officials in Erving and Gill have lobbied for safety improvements to the French King Bridge for years, citing its unfortunate reputation as a destination for suicides. MassDOT, which manages the bridge, does have a plan in the works, but it has been rescheduled multiple times since 2019, leading to some worry that it is not a high priority.

MassDOT is now scheduled to release a design for the project on Feb. 25, and to accept public comments via email until March 11. Comments can be sent to MassDOT Chief Engineer Patricia A. Leavenworth at dot.feedback.highway@state.ma.us.

Comerford and Whipps organized their own public comment session to hear directly from their constituents, they explained. Thursday’s meeting was recorded, to be sent to MassDOT as part of its public comment process.

The meeting drew a diverse group, including some who had personally lost someone at the bridge. Others had different kinds of experiences at the bridge, such as a few emergency responders who advocated strongly for safety improvements.

One theme that appeared several times, from mental health professionals as well as others, was that safety barriers would at least delay a person who is contemplating suicide, and that even a small delay can make the difference.

“It’s been said that these barriers aren’t going to stop somebody if they want to go badly enough. I completely disagree,” said Heath Cummings, a former Erving police officer who is now on the Northfield Selectboard.

“I have the perspective of wishing I’d had a few extra minutes, or a few extra seconds, so I could do something to change these people’s minds,” Cummings continued. “Making a horrible decision over a 4-foot barrier is way too easy.”

Cummings, who grew up in Erving, also noted how the bridge’s reputation seems to have changed in his lifetime.

“It’s gained a whole different reputation. It’s not known for anything pleasant anymore,” he said bluntly.

William Bembury, who is on the Erving Selectboard, made a similar point.

“For 30-plus years I’ve watched and read, as everyone has in Franklin County and surrounding communities, that the bridge has taken another person,” he said. “We need the safety barriers. We need it now. Not tomorrow, not next year. I say that to DOT after 30 years of watching this happen, year after year.”

Heather White, the Western Massachusetts director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said that, in research on suicide, a physical barrier to limit physical access is considered the most effective prevention.

Even a slight delay can affect the person’s decision because it makes the decision more difficult, she explained. And, people who are suicidal typically don’t have a “Plan B,” she said. If the first option proves too difficult, it will most likely prevent the suicide entirely.

“It gives the person that ‘reset time’ to think it through,” said Erving Fire Chief Phillip Wonkka. “I would highly advocate the barriers.”

Erving officials in particular have argued to MassDOT in the past that the bridge in its present state is not only causing loss of life, but that it’s an expensive liability to the local emergency agencies.

Wonkka, in the Thursday public comment session, said it costs roughly $8,000 an hour to respond to a call for a potential suicide at the bridge — accounting for the multiple emergency agencies that are involved. A search typically takes 14 days to recover the person’s body, or else the person is never found, he said.

Some criticize the idea of adding barriers to the bridge on the ground that it would be an eyesore. Rep. Whipps said she disagrees with that point.

“Having somebody say they don’t want to do it because it would take away the view ...” Whipps said. “We’ve got to focus on life.”

Reach Max Marcus at
mmarcus@recorder.com
or 413-930-4231.


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