Quechee Gorge Bridge suicide study nears completion
Strategies for prevention being ready for legislative consideration
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION - Two dozen people gathered at the Hartford Town Hall this week to take a first look at a study requested by Vermont’s Legislature which is considering whether anything can be done to slow down or stop the suicides that have persistently occurred from off the Quechee Gorge Bridge for as long as anyone can remember.
So far this year two people have jumped to their deaths and, while statistically that is still consistent with the long-term average of one-death-per-year which has been borne out by official police records from the past 14 years and anecdotally from the recollections of emergency responders stretching back to at least the 1980s, there is a sense among the local business community that depends upon the Gorge’s on-going allure to tourists that the time has come to try to seriously address the problem.
“We don’t want to be known as `the suicide bridge’,” P.J. Skehan, the director of the Hartford Chamber of Commerce which runs the Visitor’s Center at the Gorge, noted, “That’s not going to do anyone any good.”
The 165-foot deep gorge, carved by turbulent waters at the end of the last ice age when what was once the Champlain Sea suddenly found itself draining out into what is now the Connecticut River, is a “big tourist attraction” for Hartford and specifically Quechee, with 100,000 people stopping each year at the visitor’s center and an estimated ten times that many just getting out of their cars during the course of their travels, stretching their legs, looking at the views, and wandering the nearby shops and restaurants.
When someone jumps it’s not only a personal and family tragedy, it disrupts the traffic along Route 4 for hours and the morbid pall that the emergency activity casts affects businesses up and down the road as well.
“Every suicide is traumatic for all of us and for the first responders,” Skehan told the gathering. “We should be looking for a solution that is going to prevent suicide and increase the visibility of the Gorge.”
VTrans Planning Coordinator Jackie Cassino explained to the group which included town officials, a high school guidance counselor and parents of individuals who had killed themselves at the Gorge, that some improvements are already underway.
By the end of this month a pair of emergency “call towers” will appear on either end of the Quechee Gorge Bridge ready to connect anyone experiencing a crisis directly to a Headrest representative at any hour of the day or night.
Better, brighter lighting is also being considered for several sections of the bridge and adjacent parking areas in an effort to make the bridge and its surroundings less gloomy in the evenings.
By the end of this year, the final report on other, more elaborate, options designed to deter anyone contemplating suicide from the landmark bridge will be presented to the Vermont Legislature for consideration.
Lucy Gibson, a transportation engineer with the firm DuBois & King said that work on the draft report began back in May and since then “a lot of very well educated and informed people have done a ton of research,” trying to identify things that can be done.
One of the main challenges of trying to address the suicide issue at the Quechee Gorge is that the bridge is not just there for aesthetic reasons: Route 4 is the major east-west corridor across the center of Vermont and as a result Quechee, “is really one of the most visited state parks…people are constantly streaming over the bridge at all hours of the day and night,” Gibson noted.
Any solution that requires new structures and engineering on the bridge will also have to take into account how that effects the ability of state highway crews to plow snow off of it in the winter as well.
Even though suicide prevention is not a direct responsibility of VTrans, Gibson noted that “if any intersection in Vermont had recorded two or three deaths” in a single year’s time it would be “over the top” of the list of priorities to get fixed.
The Gorge has gone some years entirely without a suicide but a review of the past 14 years shows an average of one death per year with the worst of those years, 2006, having seen three deaths but Gibson pointed out that those statistics leave out the near-misses. Records show that there were nineteen successful interventions with people who were considering jumping in the last eight years, although in at least one of those cases the person returned later and jumped.
Gibson explained that the options under consideration range from just adding the signs, phones and lights and hoping that does the trick to some sort of full-scale installation consisting of walls, barricades and/or nets.
There are several competing factors the study is trying to balance. To begin with, the death-per-visitor rate for those who walk out and enjoy the scenic views from the bridge is on the order of one-in-a-million which puts the estimated $1 million-to-$5 million dollar construction budget for any of the more elaborate options in perspective.
Both the local business community, which relies on the Gorge as a stopping point for tourists, and the historic preservationists who want the 1911 steel arch bridge which was originally built for the Woodstock Railroad to retain it’s aesthetic character are anxious not to turn the antique span into a barricaded fortress. Then there are the engineering challenges that come with adding heavy new features to the outermost edges of an existing structure.
Plexiglass walls have been used on some other suicide-prone bridges around the country but people doodling graffiti with marker pens or permanently etching into the glass with sharp objects has proven to be a problem. The larger issue, Gibson explained, is that they would act as giant sails causing `wind loading’ forces to twist and torque against the bridge, necessitating costly reinforcements.
The next step down from a glass wall would be a palisade-style barricade of closely spaced metal posts - a barrier that would be approximately 10-feet tall with six-inch gaps between each upright. A person, or a camera lens, standing right at the fencing would have a clear view of the Gorge but it would be a markedly different experience for vehicular traffic driving along the bridge. ““They put a lot less stress on the bridge and they don’t catch the wind,” Gibson noted before adding, “None of these things are one-hundred-percent effective. People have climbed over the barriers as well.”
That leads to the third major option that many similar sites around the country have installed in tandem with the palisade barriers: nets. Ironically, the nets turn out to be more of a psychological prevention measure than a physical barrier. Experience has shown that for whatever reasons “people don’t tend to jump into the nets,” Gibson explained. The effect is sufficiently profound that at several bridges which have been studied the upright barriers walls have been removed and just the nets have been left with no resulting spike back up in the number of jumpers or attempts. The nets are also comparatively inexpensive and much more unobtrusive than most people initially assume, Gibson said.
The type of netting that would likely be proposed for Quechee would be cantilevered from the edges of the existing bridge deck supports - 15-feet down and then extended 15-feet out. Again, because their main purposes is to dissuade someone from jumping in the first place, and because about half of all suicides at the Gorge have taken place at night, installation of netting in Quechee would likely also come with some inexpensive night lights under the bridge to illuminate the nets from the perspective of anyone standing right at the railing.
In the event that there was an unwitnessed jump into the nets, Windsor County Senator Alison Clarkson asked if there would be any way for authorities to intervene.
“Do the nets trigger an alert?” Clarkson wondered.
The engineers replied that the nets in Ithaca, New York were wired with motion sensors and there was no reason why Quechee couldn’t be set up the same way.
Although responsibility for the study fell to VTrans to carry out, the Quechee Gorge Bridge is in good condition and so there are currently no plans on the books to renovate or upgrade it any time soon. The final report will be turned in to the Legislature by the end of this year and then it will be up to lawmakers to decide whether to program in any sort of exceptional project just to address the suicide issue. “We don’t have a cost estimate yet,” for the potential interventions, Gibson explained but when pressed she guesstimated the options that were discussed this week would fall at somewhere in the ballpark between one million and five million dollars.
Kip Miller, who has owned the gift shop at the Gorge since 1980 and is on his 36th season there spoke up during the meeting and said, “We questioned the business community (in Quechee) and the consensus seems to favor the netting.”
Gary Neil, who has also long been involved in businesses at the Gorge from nearby shops and restaurants to the Quechee Segway Tours of the area, stressed the need for “win-win” solutions to any changes to the bridge. “I think we all know that something needs to be done,” Neil said but he noted that in the age of social media, “People judge minute to minute. That bridge and that view is important to millions of people (but) their take away is the social media message.”
Against that backdrop, Neil suggested, “Mission One is to make (visits to the Gorge) a wonderful experience.”
Senator Clarkson also asked town officials about the cumulative costs of the recovery operations when a suicide does occur, costs which involve not only the physical removal of the jumper’s body from the bottom of the Gorge, often using the Hartford Fire Department’s special crane that was built for just that purpose by engineering students at Dartmouth College, but also the complete police investigation into the jumper’s background that is carried out each time in order to reassure authorities that foul play wasn't involved.
“Any death in the state of Vermont that is not attended is investigated,” Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten explained. “In my first 18 months here we had four deaths at the Gorge. We have to check social media and go through cell phones. We have to rule everything out. The families expect that and the community expects that.”
Town manager Leo Pullar also noted that when someone jumps at night the costs run a bit higher because it delays the start of the recovery efforts. “We won’t go down at night so we leave someone (from the police department) up at the top to secure the scene. I think $15,000 to $20,000 is a rough estimate,” each time for the town, Pullar said noting that the state also incurs some cost before each investigation closes.
Senator Clarkson said that even though there aren’t any specific projects in the pipeline for the Quechee Gorge Bridge in the foreseeable future, if the Legislature is convinced by the report that something can be done it could be addressed separately. “The Agency of Transportation (VTrans) has the opportunity to make this a priority,” Clarkson suggested, “There’s no need to wait.”
The draft presentation, complete with pictures of the various options that have been tried on other bridges around the country, can be viewed on-line at: