To prevent suicides, citizens ask bridge board for a safety study

Posted 1/8/20

The Rhode Island Bridge and Turnpike Authority Board opened its final meeting under Director Buddy Croft’s tenure on Wednesday morning with public comments from citizens concerned with stopping …

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To prevent suicides, citizens ask bridge board for a safety study

Posted

The Rhode Island Bridge and Turnpike Authority Board opened its final meeting under Director Buddy Croft’s tenure on Wednesday morning with public comments from citizens concerned with stopping suicide attempts from the state’s tallest bridges.

Brian Ganley, a Bristol resident and longtime volunteer with the Samaritans, spoke first. Mr. Ganley co-founded Bridging the Gap for Safety and Healing with Melissa Cotta, a Tiverton resident and crisis intervention professional who witnessed a suicide from the Mt. Hope Bridge four years ago.

They were joined by Portsmouth resident Mark Mello, who just a few weeks ago helped restrain a young woman who was attempting to jump from the Mt. Hope Bridge. Mr. Ganley described their organization as a task force committed to seeing suicide prevention barriers placed on bridges. “I’ve lost many friends and family to suicide,” said Mr. Ganley. “Including suicide from the state’s unprotected bridges.

“I see the pain of family and friends trying to deal with that loss at the support group, Safe Place, which I help coordinate. Suicide can’t always be predicted, but suicide from our bridges can be actively prevented, with the installation of suicide prevention barriers.”

“We are asking for a fully-funded study commission to explore the feasibility of installing suicide and pedestrian barriers on our bridges.”

According to Mr. Ganley, the study is needed to determine the type, weight and cost of barriers, to then determine their feasibility.

“The study would be the first step to prevent any more of these senseless tragedies … The Turnpike and Bridge Authority has been a great partner working with the Samaritans and other agencies to raise awareness … but now it’s time for the next step,” he said.

“Our state motto is hope — it’s time to make hope a reality, and suicide from Rhode Island’s bridges a thing of the past.”

Ms. Cotta spoke next, recounting her story of trying to thwart a suicide attempt from the Mt. Hope Bridge in early February, 2016, on a brutally cold day with nearly 50-mph wind gusts. Sadly, her efforts failed and a man lost his life that day. The experience has forever changed her.

“These bridges present an easy opportunity for people to end their lives,” she said. “They are easy access, and there’s no time to take that space, that pause, where someone can intervene.”

“The people that are going to the bridges … people say they’re sick, or they have a lot of problems. But we are all vulnerable to problems in this world. We all have bad days — really, really bad days.”

She also mentioned the rippling, detrimental effect that even one death by suicide can have on a community, citing the 2018 death of popular Tiverton Middle School Assistant Principal David Frerich and the impact that has had on the town she calls home. “Everyone has value, and everyone has bad days,” she said.

A scary scene atop the bridge

Mr. Mello, a veteran who helped prevent a suicide on the Mt. Hope Bridge on Dec. 1, became emotional as he described holding on to the bridge cable while holding the arm of a young woman who had swung her legs over the edge and was struggling to be allowed to jump.

“She was yelling at us to let her go,” he said.

“For me, that was a lot. I was in the military, and I’ve lost a lot of friends to suicide since I’ve been home.

“As the cop grabbed her, I looked over and realized I was on the ledge; there was nothing but water next to me,” he said. “You guys have nothing on that bridge to stop people from going over. There’s no safety net. That ledge is only so wide.”

“To hear these stories, is something that needs to be addressed,” said Mr. Croft. “It probably is time for public discussion to be had on how best to address it.

“In the world we live in, we have some challenging issues to deal with. I’ve spoken with people at the Golden Gate and Verrazano bridges, and I’m aware of the measures they’re taking. Hopefully my (successor) will be able to get to that point. I haven’t been able to get there yet.”

Board member and Rhode Island Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti likened the situation to the state’s DUI problem, suggesting that it is at least partly a cultural issue, but admitted that there are engineering controls that the DOT has applied to contribute to solving that issue.

“The biggest issue is that we are at the least, a primary stakeholder,” said RIBTA board chairman Stephen Waluk. “It’s a health issue, there’s a fiscal piece … but it certainly is a priority for us to look at what solutions we can come to that are pragmatic, as soon as possible.

“This is not a new issue, but when people speak up, it brings it home.”

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