A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
Public workshop next Wednesday to focus on
suicide-prevention fencing for Aurora Bridge
by Kirby Lindsay
Originally published in the North Seattle Herald-Outlook on January 25, 2008
For those who work and live around the Aurora Bridge, or drive or walk under it, a certain fear has developed. “I used to love the view,” Autumn Pulver said, “before I knew.” Her office, at Impinj, stands in the shadows of the impressive structure. Now she looks at the bridge, sees someone pause along the railing and wonders, “What’s that guy doing?”
Autumn is one of Seattle FRIENDS (FRemont Individuals & Employees Non-profit to Decrease Suicides) who hope to eliminate that fear – in addition to changing horrific numbers. According to information at www.seattlefriends.org, seven people jumped to their death from the bridge in 2007, additional information reports two people jumped and survived.
On January 30, 2008 in the B.F. Day Elementary School gymnasium (3921 Linden Avenue North) the City of Seattle will sponsor a public workshop to discuss a SR99-Aurora Bridge Suicide Prevention Fence.
Michael Jerrett, Executive Director for the Fremont Chamber of Commerce (FCC) has worked with Seattle FRIENDS since it started in the spring of 2007. “We are in favor of an economic and elegant solution to prevent suicides and keep people safe on the ground,” states the official position of the FCC on the Aurora tragedies.
Vafa Ghazi, President of the Fremont Neighborhood Council (FNC), acknowledged his organization also supports FRIENDS efforts to find a solution to prevent suicide from Aurora. A letter of support for FRIENDS also states the FNC is “concerned that thorough consideration has not been given to the various options…” The letter continues, “We have received feedback from a number of Fremont residents regarding the broad psychological and aesthetic impacts a physical (and visual) barrier will have.”
“We support putting a barrier on the bridge,” Greg Phipps, a spokesperson with WSDOT, said, “our first priority is safety.” State Representative Mary Lou Dickerson believes the barrier delivers a basic message of safety. With the increasing number of suicidal deaths, she said, something must be done and “putting up a barrier would actually decrease suicide.”
It is no longer simply a matter of the safety of those who attempt suicide. As Jerrett stated, “it is not a matter of if but when,” someone who jumps from the bridge will hurt, or kill, someone else. “The [suicide death] I witnessed a few months ago could have easily landed on someone at the construction site [below the bridge].” The toll of these tragedies has expanded, as the population beneath the bridge expands. Jerrett spoke from personal experience, “people are traumatized by it.”
“It is only a matter of time,” Ryan Thurston, founder of FRIENDS, explained. He formed FRIENDS among his fellow employees at Impinj. Now, “we’ve grown to include the Youth Suicide Prevention Project, the Fremont Chamber, and Rachel…”
High school senior, Rachel Izzo, heard of the non-profit’s efforts to prevent suicides from Aurora. After she lost a friend to mental illness, and suicide, she wanted to do something. “This deals directly with the issue,” she explained. It gives her something positive. “To be a part of this group helps me,” she explained.
“No one talks about it,” she said, of her friend’s death and the awkward silences left in the aftermath, “it is something that doesn’t just go away if you don’t talk about it.” Thurston understands, “I have a friend who committed suicide,” he explained, “having gone through it you know what others are going through.”
Originally, grassroots efforts focused on all options but when they met opposition (see side bar) the most natural thing, according to Jerrett, was to “go for the fix that we know is most effective.”
Pulver acknowledged that a barrier, in combination with regular police patrols, “would slow them down.” A barrier gives someone in distress a chance to reconsider, where jumping doesn’t. “There is no way to stop once you’ve started,” Izzo said.
The FRIENDS web site has links to photos of bridges with barriers, many of which look organic and part of the original structure. Pulver hopes people give the designs a chance, “if the bridge were built today, it would have this.”
Phipps explained, “Evidence supports that, done right, [barriers] work.” A common misconception, and concern, is that a barrier will only move the problem elsewhere. A rational argument, proven untrue by three case studies presented on the FRIENDS web site. For instance, in Washington D.C., two bridges stand one block apart. When a barrier was installed on one, the other saw no increase in suicide deaths. “Generally, the studies that are out show [barriers] are effective,” Phipps stated.
The 75-year-old George Washington Memorial Bridge, (the official name of the bridge) is owned by Washington State. Jodie Vice, legislative aide to Seattle City Councilmember Jan Drago, easily acknowledged the bridge as state property - that exists within Seattle and affects its citizens directly. “The [City] Council is interested in this project,” she emphasized.
Other options have been discussed, but for now “the intent is to look at the barrier,” Vice explained. That look includes examination of the historical nature of the bridge, a National Historic Landmark. Representative Dickerson feels confident the City of Seattle can facilitate a design that meets National Registry guidelines.
Izzo is blunt in her opinion, “would you rather have a bridge from which people jump but looks pretty…” while Thurston is more pragmatic, “bike helmets don’t look good, but they keep us safe.” For Thurston, “there is a safety aspect. People under the bridge are in danger.”
WSDOT, Phipps explained, “haven’t started a design yet, but we have started a cost estimate.” Without a design, the barrier construction is estimated at $4.3 million. That price includes physical costs, traffic control, permits (including those needed to make changes to a historic structure) and design.
“For the [Fremont Neighborhood] Council, the main complaint that has been raised is that other options have not been given a chance to work,” Ghazi explained, “the barrier would affect hundreds of thousands of people.”
“We are trying to reach out to everyone we can,” Vice explained efforts of the City to give voice to concerned citizens through private interviews with stakeholders (including the FNC), a public workshop and mailings. In mid-February, a design charette will be held among professional designers to create ideas. These will be exhibited at a public open house immediately afterward for review.
Ghazi voiced his concern, “it seems the public meeting is just about the barrier.” Vice acknowledged, “we are not going to get into [other options], we’re not interested in opening that up. That is for WSDOT.”
“If we end up with the barrier,” Ghazi admitted, “we’d like to have input.” In return, Vice would like everyone to feel welcome. “Come to the workshop,” she invited. The City has hired professional facilitators, and “we will clearly hear concerns in our process. We don’t want to shut anyone out.”
Vice believes, “it is becoming the norm to work together,” toward a common solution. The grassroots effort Thurston started has brought action on a problem many considered insurmountable. “I’m really encouraged by how fast everything has moved,” Jerrett praised. “The political support is huge,” he said, “to see something go right, and not have the usual Seattle analysis-paralysis take place, it’s very encouraging, thus far.”
Representative Dickerson has worked closely with FRIENDS, “to make sure people hear their message and know the urgency.” Those “people” include legislators, and “I was able to get the Governor’s point person to come and hear a presentation by FRIENDS, and to think about the project.” She sees the $1.4 million pledged by the Governor as “quite an achievement.” She gives credit to Thurston, and FRIENDS. “They are both tenacious and creative in their delivery of their message.”
“It happened to be timing,” Vice credits with the speedy progress of this project. The City had money budgeted for it in 2008, but funds became available in 2007 to move studies and design planning up earlier than expected. The timing felt right to move forward, as Vice pointed out, “since Seattle FRIENDS have been working so hard.”
“We have the money in the budget,” Representative Dickerson explained, “the Governor put it in and I believe the House and the Senate will agree on this.” A vote is expected during this short legislative session. “I love to see citizen advocacy work this well.” Dickerson stated, “It is a great thing when it happens like this.”
If you are interested in joining FRIENDS, sign up on their web site at www.seattlefriends.org., or check out their MySpace and facebook pages.
Kirby Lindsay lives in Fremont, four blocks from the George Washington Memorial Bridge. She welcomes your comments at email@example.com
- "Hope For The Aurora Bridge"
- by Kirby Lindsay, Oct 21, 2009
- "The draw of the Aurora Bridge"
- by Kirby Lindsay, Sept 8, 2009
- "Hurdles to the Bridge Barrier Cleared for Construction"
- by Kirby Lindsay, Sept 1, 2009
- "Stemming the tide of suicides"
- by Kirby Lindsay, June 17, 2009
©2010 Kirby Lindsay. This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Reproduction, adaptation or distribution without permission is prohibited.