Town officials plan plaque in memory of lives lost at French King Bridge

  • The existing railings on the French King Bridge over the Connecticut River between Gill and Erving. Staff File Photo/Paul Franz

  • The French King Bridge looking east from Gill to Erving. Staff File Photo/Paul Franz

  • A rendering from MassDOT of the new safety barriers that will be installed at the French King Bridge between Gill and Erving in the summer of 2022. CONTRIBUTED IMAGE

Staff Writer
Published: 12/7/2021 7:07:08 PM
Modified: 12/7/2021 7:06:41 PM

Timed with the planned installation of safety barriers on the French King Bridge, town officials in Gill and Erving are collaborating to install a plaque in memory of lives lost to suicide there.

The concept was initiated by Oxford resident Stacey Hamel, whose stepson, Bryan Hamel, was suspected to have jumped from the bridge in 2018. The plaque would remember those who lost their lives, as well as show support for grieving loved ones and honor first responders.

Gill’s Selectboard discussed first-draft wording, written in collaboration with Erving Assistant Town Planner Mariah Kurtz, during its Monday evening meeting. To come to fruition, the state Department of Transportation will need letters of support from both towns.

“There’s been so much loss at that bridge,” Gill Town Administrator Ray Purington said. “I think it’s important to give people the space and place to reflect.”

“I think it’s just important to acknowledge that there’s been a lot of pain for our community around that bridge and that the barriers being put up can’t take away that pain,” Kurtz said. “I hope the installation of that plaque can offer some form of healing for some families.”

Purington said Gill is trying to “fine-tune the wording” for the plaque with Erving, and is seeking someone to write a final draft. Kurtz said she has been in contact with affected families, including Hamel, to guide the plaque’s wording.

“We’re trying to keep it simple, but heartfelt,” she said of the wording. “So far, I’ve gotten thumbs up with some of the language.”

Both Gill and Erving are trying to have their “support of concept” letters sent to MassDOT within the next couple of weeks. Purington said he is finalizing Gill’s letter this week, while Kurtz said the Erving Selectboard will be discussing — and possibly approving — the town’s letter during its Dec. 13 meeting.

Discussions to install a plaque follow a years-long process to have suicide prevention barriers installed at the bridge. Town officials and public safety workers have advocated that the existing railings, which are about 3½ feet tall, are not sufficient, and that taller barriers would make the bridge less of a draw to those contemplating suicide.

MassDOT, which manages the bridge, has been receptive to these concerns, but slow to act. In 2018, MassDOT prepared several design options for new safety barriers. Town officials in Gill and Erving unanimously chose the same one, which was then incorporated into MassDOT’s five-year budget outlook.

In February, MassDOT announced that the project is finally moving ahead, with design work set to finish this year and construction planned for the spring or summer of next year. Kurtz said procurement documents for the suicide prevention barriers are being finalized and that a procurement for bids will go out in January.

“It should go without saying ... that safety barriers of some kind are always in place,” Hamel said of large, state-regulated bridges like the French King.

Kurtz added that Erving will try to collaborate with Gill to hold a ceremony at the time of the plaque’s installation to “gather and honor the inspiration for the plaque.”

“We would like there to be intentionality around the installation of that plaque,” she noted.

Hamel hopes the plaque may serve as a reminder that others, especially trained professionals, care.

“I want people to know that they should always have someone to turn to in that time of crisis,” she said.

Those affected by suicides at the French King Bridge may email Kurtz at mariah.kurtz@erving-ma.gov to provide input on potential plaque wording or ceremony planning.

Reach Julian Mendoza at 413-772-0261, ext. 261 or jmendoza@recorder.com.


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