No 'quick-and-easy' answers for Aurora Bridge

On Dec. 18, 2006, the City of Seattle installed six phones and 18 signs along railings of the Aurora Bridge. The phones connect to either 911 or the Crisis Clinic, and the signs state "Suicidal? 24-Hour Crisis Line: (206) 461-3222."

After nine people died in 2006 from suicidal leaps off the bridge - a frightening increase from the annual average of four - the phone installations have led to a collective sigh of relief.

Sue Eastgard, director of the Youth Suicide Prevention Program, doesn't want to "sound Pollyanna" about the phones; however, "I say, 'Hallelujah!'" She doesn't expect signs and/or phones to end all tragedies, but she does believe they'll help.

Surprisingly, the phones were not installed as a reaction to the recent increase in deaths. According to spokespeople for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT), they've been studying different prevention plans for some time.

"This has been an ongoing issue," according to SDOT's Gregg Hira-kawa. The phones are "a deterrent measure," he says, not a total solution. "We are continuing to look at this matter."

A tough challenge

Suicide is a serious problem. Homicides accounted for only 4 percent of deaths investigated by the Seattle-King County Office of the Medical Examiner in 2005.

According to those same statistics, suicide accounted for 12 percent and took an average of 2.9 more lives than homicide.

Granted, the number of people to die by suicide from the Aurora Bridge is a very small fraction of the total number of suicides citywide.

Still, if calling Aurora the "jumper's bridge" leads to awareness and prevention, such an overstatement will be worth it.

Stan Suchan, at WSDOT, declares suicide prevention on the Aurora Bridge, "one of the toughest challenges I've worked on in my 13 years at WSDOT."

SDOT and WSDOT continue to research, and they've consulted with "a mix of people from a mix of backgrounds," including the Seattle Police Department and King County Mental Health in their search for solutions.

"The quick-and-easy answers just don't exist," Suchan explains. Preventative fences or nets on the bridge have to allow for factors of weather, traffic (car, pedestrian and bicycle), weight and altitude.

Plus, every couple of years, the bridge must undergo a complete inspection, for the safety of everyone on and below the structure. Inspectors use an UBIT (an Under Bridge Inspection Truck) that resembles a reverse cherry-picker. Suspended 167 feet from the bridge deck, inspectors visually examine the bridge underside.

"A fence won't be 100-percent effective," Suchan points out, which further adds to the challenge.

Engineering considerations aren't the only stumbling blocks. In its "Aurora Bridge Suicide Prevention Project" report, WSDOT outlined the environmental impacts, public process and funding considerations they must make for significant changes to the bridge and any increase in ongoing bridge maintenance and operation costs due to changes.

The Aurora Bridge, as a National Historic Landmark, falls under federal and state historic-preservation laws. These laws, regulations and guides were created to help, but now they'll provide more impediments to preventing bridge tragedies.

WSDOT engineers continue to work hard.

"For the engineers, it is a challenge," Suchan said, "I have great faith in them."

According to Suchan, state Secre-tary of Transportation Doug McDo-nald monitors the situation.

Everyone is "waiting to see whe-ther the phones make a difference," considering the $30,000 paid by the City of Seattle general fund - "exponentially less expensive compared to fences and nets," Suchan says. She believes that with any other solution, such as a fully enclosed pedestrian walkway beneath the bridge, "the price tag is going to be big."

Giving help

In the meantime, we can all work to educate ourselves. Eastgard, a nationally recognized leader in suicide prevention, says calling the police "is the No. 1 thing to do, if you encounter someone attempting suicide.

Generally, she advises, "if you haven't seen someone in a while, call them, contact them."

Giving help can be simple, she says: "There are people that we've been worried about, and extending that 'How are you doing?' does help."

Eastgard works in schools teaching teens to help one another. After training, when asked if the program helped, a student observed that while he couldn't be sure if they'd stopped any suicides, he did notice that no one sits by themselves at lunch anymore.

One in 10 Americans will suffer depression at some time in their life. Statistics vary, but somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of those who suffer from clinical depression will die by suicide.

"Most suicidal people want help," Eastgard explains. Of the four people who survived their leap off the Aurora Bridge, none ever made a further attempt.

In a 1978 study, done at the University of California, of 515 people prevented from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, only 6 percent went on to kill themselves.

"We need to give people opportunities to be seen in their pain. It is simply about acknowledging," East-gard says. "They want you to be with them" to listen, rather than trying to bury the topic under platitudes or promises."

Offer a lifeline by giving a few minutes of your time; as Eastgard says, "most suicides can be prevented."

Kirby Lindsay has lived within sight of the George Washington Memorial Bridge for 16 years. She invites your comments at

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