A so-called "suicide bridge" in Portland, Oregon has seen no fewer than 17 deaths in the last ten years, a heartbreaking number that seems too high to be true. Now, those who live near the landmark are proposing that the city put up a barrier to dissuade jumpers from leaping to their deaths, but the idea faces harsh criticism from some.
After seeing three suicides since January--the latest being that of a 15-year old girl just last week--an attorney whose offices are located right beside the Vista Bridge is asking city leaders to step in and make big changes, not the least of which include a suicide prevention hotline and a barrier which would make it difficult to cross in order to jump. At the very least, Kenneth Kahn says, it would make a jumper think twice about what he calls an impulsive act.
Kahn's office sits right below the bridge, giving him a beautiful view turned horrific in the last several years. In his time there, he's discovered the ruined bodies of eight people. For him, there's no question that something needs to be done. But for Portland officials, it's complicated. Putting up barriers could cost upwards of $3 million, and that's not the only issue; because the bridge is a historic site--built in 1926--altering it in any way requires permission from the State Historic Preservation Office.
"The mayor would like to see some prevention methods taken," a rep from Mayor Charlie Hales' office said. "But it's an issue of finding the funding. We've explored several sources and continue to look."
Nonetheless, Mayor Hale has put city Commissioner Steve Novick in charge of the transportation department, and the bridge falls under the scope of his responsibilities. He agrees that something must be done, and soon.
"We should have barriers on Vista Bridge," Novick said. "Unfortunately, suicide, to a shocking extent, is a matter of convenience. Barriers would save lives."
Kahn says he understands that it won't be easy.
"As majestic as the bridge is, the darker side of it is it's a killing machine," Kenneth Kahn said. "People end their lives here. Obviously, there's a historic nature of the bridge that must be preserved. And there's an aesthetic value that has to be continued. But those interests have to be outweighed by the necessity of preventing suicides from this bridge."
Other bridges in the U.S. have tried what Kahn is proposing with positive results; after barriers went up on the Duke Ellington Bridge in Washington, D.C., suicide rates dropped from four a year to zero, with no corresponding rise in suicides at nearby locations.
But aside from the cost and the potential miles of red tape, Kahn is also battling those who think that someone who wants to kill themselves will find a way to do so when thwarted by the fence; they point out that there have been other suicides in the city from high rises...two of them in recent weeks, in fact. The Facebook page Kahn started to draw attention to the issue has garnered several opinions, ranging from unending support to skepticism.
"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," wrote Les Anderson on the group's Facebook page. "You're not going to stop someone who wants to end their own life."
City officials say they are looking into Kahn's proposal, but that there are other issues which take priority. If a barrier can be funded, it might take up to five years to actually see results.
Image: Brent Wojahn, The Oregonian