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August 4, 2015

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Conceived for its beauty, Hoover Dam bridge could pose suicide danger

Without barriers, new span might beckon those wanting to end their lives

Image

Sam Morris

The Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge has no suicide prevention measures in place, such as a built-in fence or netting stretching below. Officials say security measures are in place, such as patrols by Hoover Dam police, who are trained in recognizing and preventing potential suicides.

Hoover Dam Bypass Project

The Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge section of the Hoover Dam Bypass Project is seen just south of the Hoover Dam on Aug. 19, 2010. Launch slideshow »

Hoover Dam Bridge Dedication

A view of Hoover Dam from the pedestrian walkway on the Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge is shown Thursday, October 14, 2010, during the bridge's dedication. Launch slideshow »

Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge Opens

The recently opened Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge is framed by the Hoover Dam Wednesday, October 20, 2010. Launch slideshow »

2010 Viva Bike Vegas

Participants in the Viva Bike Vegas event gather Saturday on the Hoover Dam bypass bridge before turning around to finish their 115-mile ride. Launch slideshow »

Dedication of Hoover Dam Bypass Bridge

The Hoover Dam bypass bridge is officially completed. Federal and state dignitaries from Nevada and Arizona dedicated the 1,900-foot-long bridge Thursday, October 14, 2010.

To look at it is to see only majesty and grace.

The Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, the second highest in the nation, is breathtaking.

But some experts fear it is also potentially life-taking.

Nevada consistently has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. In 2007, the most recent year that data are available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Silver State had the fifth-highest rate, with 471 deaths.

The bridge, which opened Oct. 19, stretches above the Colorado River and offers a spectacular view of Hoover Dam. It was conceived for beauty. It wasn’t designed with suicide prevention uppermost in mind.

“There was a lot of deliberation on that,” said Dave Zanetell, the bridge’s project manager from the Federal Highway Administration. “If you put a cage here, then people can go around the cage, and you’ve had an impact on the visual and historic context, so it’s kind of a delicate balance to try and find the answer.”

Alan “Lanny” Berman doesn’t buy the idea that bridge builders have to make a choice between a nice view and preventing suicide. He’s the executive director of the American Association of Suicidology.

“I’ve heard that argument for 30 years, and it makes no sense, because you can still create an aesthetically pleasing bridge,” he said. “You could have a netting underneath, I’ve seen a couple designs of that that are quite attractive; you can create a fence that is not unattractive, that people can still see through.”

While most self-inflicted deaths are caused by firearms, the ease of getting to and leaping off the bypass bridge makes deaths there inevitable, Berman said, and the bridge builder is “saying that aesthetics are more important than human life.”

Bridge officials were hesitant to talk about the issue and declined to discuss details of security plans for the structure, except to say there is a security force trained to observe pedestrians’ behavior.

Still, for some the temptation may prove irresistible.

The bridge is the only major span in the region, and all one needs to do is consider San Francisco’s famed Golden Gate Bridge to recognize the legitimacy of the suicide concern.

“Our dilemma in the Bay Area is that we’re the only bridge with sidewalks that are open to the public and therefore we experience this horrific phenomenon,” said Mary Currie, a bridge historian and spokeswoman for the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District.

As many as 7,000 people visit the Golden Gate on any given day, Currie said. The first suicide came within a year of opening. After an estimated 1,300 deaths in 73 years, bridge officials have finally approved a plan to build a suicide barrier.

“People are fascinated by structures like the Golden Gate Bridge and I think the Hoover Dam bridge is equally interesting in many ways,” Currie said.

The planned suicide barrier will be a metal net hanging 20 feet below the sidewalk, designed to catch anyone who jumps and hopefully deter people from trying, without blocking the view of motorists and pedestrians.

“The idea was to come up with a solution that would not alter the visual and aesthetic qualities of the bridge to the extent that a large barrier on top of the railing would have,” Currie said. “The net was a good compromise to come up with a good deterrent without obstructing the views.”

The net is in the final design stage, but “our main snag there is we need another $45 million in funding to build it,” she said.

The Golden Gate Bridge District has said it will not pay for the net with toll revenue, so the money must come from the federal or state government or private donations.

In the meantime, Currie said, 70 percent of jump attempts are thwarted through patrols, cameras, suicide hotline phones and help from the public.

Like the Golden Gate over San Francisco Bay, the natural beauty of the Colorado River going through Black Canyon along with the man-made wonder of the Hoover Dam is likely to draw many people to the 1,900-foot-long bridge. It’s impossible to know how many visitors to expect, but if it’s any indication, officials have occasionally had to shut down the bridge’s parking lot because of overcrowding.

“People tend to go to certain places, and a new bridge that is way off the water or the ground below it is going to be an invitation, particularly if one can access that bridge on foot,” Berman said.

The project was a group effort under the direction of the Federal Highway Administration along with the Arizona and Nevada Transportation departments; the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the Hoover Dam; and the National Park Service, which runs the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

All the agencies will remain involved in maintaining and securing the bridge, officials said, with the Nevada Highway Patrol and the Arizona Department of Public Safety patrolling the roadway, and rangers from the park service also patrolling the area.

The Hoover Dam also has its own police force, and because the parking lot and interpretive plazas that lead to the bridge’s sidewalk are in the dam’s security zone, those officers will be involved in watching the bridge’s pedestrians.

“Our police force is actually on site and would probably be first responders” to any incident, said Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Colleen Dwyer.

And because the dam itself is a known suicide destination — 35 have died, mostly suicides but some accidental, since 1962 — the dam’s police force is “extremely well trained” in recognizing and preventing potential suicides, Dwyer said.

Dwyer also said a lot of “security infrastructure” is in place to monitor the area, but said she could not elaborate for security reasons.

Berman said such efforts might not be enough.

“To be effective, you design the bridge in such a way that you put a barrier on it that makes it impossible to jump,” he said.

In the 1980s, a suicide barrier was put on the Duke Ellington Bridge, the most popular jumping place in Washington, D.C., Berman said.

In the next seven years there were no suicides on the bridge, and a similar bridge only 100 yards away — “equally as lethal if you jump from it” — did not have a major increase in suicides. The citywide suicide rate did not go up, he said.

“Somebody can be ingenious enough probably to get over anything, but there is a lot of data worldwide that if you thwart the ability to get off that bridge ... you simply are going to save lives,” Berman said.

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