My Turn: A mother’s plea about the French King Bridge

  • U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Bryan Hamel. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO


Published: 7/9/2020 5:28:58 PM

On Feb. 21, 2018, in the middle of the night, we received a call from the State Police. The Trooper spoke words that I could barely comprehend – Gill, Erving – was I familiar with the French King Bridge? I thought I was dreaming, that’s how little I understood. Then I heard – the bridge – it’s a well-known place for suicide. Was there any reason my son would be in the area? He was telling my that my stepson, U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Bryan Hamel, was suspected of having taken his own life by jumping off the French King Bridge. My husband knew the place immediately. It was sickening to watch his face as I explained what I was hearing.

Bryan had been on leave visiting. His then 7-year-old son was safely asleep at our house in Oxford, over 70 miles away from Erving. His pregnant wife was at home in Florida. What drove him to this heartbreaking act is irrelevant to this letter. What is relevant is that he knew about the French King Bridge and the reputation it has as a place to die, despite it being nowhere near our home.

Bryan’s body was not there – only his car in the middle of the bridge, front door open and a set of hand prints in the condensation on the bridge railing. Below that bridge was just fog, giant chunks of ice and cold, incredibly fast water.

His friends spent days looking along the river. His father and sister climbed trees to see better. We bought a boat. We spent every weekend from March 2018 through November scouring the shore in the snow, in the rain and in the glaring sun. We put in at The Turners Falls Rod and Gun club and went upriver to the bridge, down to Unity Park (as far as we could go) and back. We bought side sonar so we could see the bottom. We would stop under the bridge, looking at up to where Bryan jumped, wondering how this could have happened and why he chose this place so far from home.

A 140-foot drop from the bridge to the water, he chose it because of its reputation. Jumping in the February cold was certain death. He’s counted as one of two missing persons in 2018. Missing. We know he is not missing. The U.S. Navy knows he is not missing. We got the condolence letters from the White House. We know he is dead.

We’ve researched the bridge, we know it’s age, it’s height. We’ve seen the photos on Tripadvisor. My husband knows the Connecticut River from Erving to the ocean. We’ve read every story of anyone who’s ever jumped; we get Google alerts every time a body is recovered. My daughter-in-law and I have called every police station in every town along the river, to tell our story, so that they know us in case a body is found; in case Bryan’s body is found. I’ve spoken to the medical examiner’s offices in Massachusetts and in Connecticut.

We’ve read the news articles about how money has been approved to put suicide prevention barriers on the bridge and how multiple times the project has been stalled and/or funding re-directed. I’ve watched (in anger and disappointment) the video interviews of nearby residents complaining the “beauty” of the bridge would be “ruined” by barriers. What I wouldn’t do to confront one of those people and explained what “ruined” really means. New bridges are built with those preventive measures already in place to protect people.

There’s no guarantee that Bryan wouldn’t have taken his life anyway – but I believe in my heart of hearts that if he’d driven that hour and 29 minutes only to find that he couldn’t jump, that there was a layer of protection between him and that dark water, that he would have re-thought his decision and given life a second chance.

After reading the stories of Caroline “Morgan” Bren, I couldn’t take it anymore. I needed to personalize these numbers. I spoke to Mr. Purington, administrator of Gill and asked how I could help. I need to add my voice and my pain to the dollar and cents graphs. My son is not just a statistic to be used for or against these barriers. Our lives have been altered terribly and forever and I believe that suicide prevention barriers could have stopped that. I want those barriers installed to help prevent that pain for another family, to give someone a minute to think, a minute to realize it doesn’t have to be the end.

It is my understanding that the funding was approved, but the project was removed from the 2021 Capital Investment Plan. It’s also understood that the time period for public comments may be over. It’s taken a long time for Bryan’s son to be old enough for the truth. It’s taken me a long time to get to the point that I could get involved. I am asking you, please, please reconsider pushing this project forward. These barriers have been proven to save lives. Please help protect other mothers and fathers and wives and children from getting the phone call that tells them their life is about to altered terribly and forever. $3,000,000 is not a small amount, I understand, but by funding this project – and putting those barriers in place – you could not only save lives but eliminate the stigma this bridge carries, making it, finally, just a beautiful landmark, not a suicide destination.

Stacey M. Hamel, a Gold Star Mother, is a resident of Oxford. She sent this letter to state and towns officials.

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