Portlanders push for barrier at ‘Suicide Bridge’

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — On a sunny January afternoon, 12 stories above a busy street, a newly engaged 19-year-old woman jumped to her death from a spectacular arch bridge west of downtown Portland. Last month, in the middle of the night, a 40-year-old man did the same. Last week, yet another person — a 15-year-old girl — plunged from the span.

The deaths sadden but no longer surprise those who live and work near the Vista Bridge, known colloquially citywide as “The Suicide Bridge.” They have come to expect such tragedies at the structure, from which there is a majestic vista of the city skyline; the opening shot of the TV series “Portlandia” was shot from the span.

Attorney Kenneth Kahn shares an office with his wife, a life coach, that sits almost directly underneath the bridge. Over the years he has heard the horrible slam of bodies on pavement and discovered the remains of eight strangers.

“Just imagine a human being detonating,” he said.

Now the Kahns are leading a group, Friends of The Vista Bridge, that is pressing the city to install suicide-prevention barriers, a step taken at bridges throughout the world, from the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge in Santa Barbara, Calif., to the Bloor Street Viaduct in Toronto and El Viaducto de Segovia in Madrid. Jumping from a bridge is an impulsive act. A barrier, the group contends, introduces a pause that may make someone think twice.

But the group, which formed after the January suicide, faces its own obstacle: money. City leaders, though receptive to the idea, are tackling a $20 million budget shortfall, and it is projected to cost $2.5 million to put architecturally appropriate barriers on the bridge, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The city may seek a federal grant.

“We certainly think of it as a high priority,” City Commissioner Steve Novick said. “But there’s a whole mess of competing priorities and not much money.”

The group must also overcome the skepticism of those who believe that people who are determined to kill themselves will find a way. There is no shortage of spans in this city known as “Bridgetown,” and within recent weeks people have jumped to their deaths from the eighth floor of a homeless shelter and the rooftop bar of a downtown hotel.

“I don’t particularly feel that throwing money at an issue necessarily solves it, and altering the bridge because of a few people who want to end their life seems pointless,” said Les Anderson, a magician who is among several who’ve voiced their opposition on the group’s Facebook page. “You’re not going to stop someone who wants to end their own life.”

At least 17 people have killed themselves at the Vista Bridge in the past decade, although there is no reliable estimate for how many people have committed suicide there since it opened in 1926.

Signs placed on the bridge last September promote a suicide-prevention hotline. Three callers have specifically referenced the sign when phoning for help, said David Westbrook of the nonprofit Lines for Life.

Several studies have found a reduction or elimination in suicides from bridges with barriers. For example, the number of suicides off the Duke Ellington Bridge in Washington, D.C., went from an average of four a year before a fence was installed in 1986 to one in the five years following, with no corresponding increase at another nearby span.

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