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State rep: Suicide fence on Penobscot Narrows Bridge too expensive

PROSPECT, Maine -- 06/28/2017 - Maine Department of Transportation's Luke Lorrimer (right) tests the crisis phone while Tucker Hydra works to install now signs at the Penobscot Narrows Bridge on the Prospect side Wednesday. Ashley L. Conti | BDN

(BDN) -- Lawmakers on the state’s joint Transportation Committee think a suicide-prevention fence on the Penobscot Narrows Bridge would be too expensive, ineffective and an eyesore, according to Rep. Karl Ward, who said he asked about a fence at the request of a constituent.

The Dedham Republican, who represents the communities on both sides of the bridge, said committee members told him that suicidal people simply “would find another way” if jumping from the Penobscot Narrows Bridge were impossible. He added that he was told protective fencing would cost $500,000 to $1 million.

That cost was the the main reason an emergency bill to install a prevention barrier on the Penobscot Narrows Bridge failed in 2014, he said.

“I was advised that the committee still felt as they did 3 years ago and that I would be unlikely to get any support,” Ward said. “I do not have any plans to submit legislation at this point.”

In May 2015 the Maine Department of Transportation spent $30,000 to install four solar-powered crisis hotline phones on the Penobscot Narrows Bridge. Two phones are on either side of the bridge.

But those phones have been malfunctioning since the winter — including on June 23, when authorities began the search for a Sedgwick man in his 60s who is feared to have jumped off the bridge. His car was found before dawn that day — parked and still running — at the midpoint of the bridge. A body has not been found, but authorities suspect the Sedgwick man was the eighth suicide at the bridge — the second one this year.

“We think he jumped off the bridge,” said Maine State Police spokesman Stephen McCausland.

New handsets were installed Wednesday, and all four phones were working on Thursday when a Bangor Daily News reporter checked them.

No state or local agency apparently keeps track of how many people have died by suicide from individual bridges, but Greg Marley, clinical director for National Association on Mental Illness of Maine says the span near Fort Knox State Park in Prospect, which is around 135 feet above the Penobscot River, is the most used.

“Over recent years, the [Penobscot Narrows] has been most common,” he said.

State Sen. Kim Rosen, a Republican who represents nearby Bucksport, said Monday that “many constituents have asked” for a suicide-prevention barrier on the 2,120-foot span that connects Prospect to Verona Island, where at least seven suicides have occurred since it opened in 2006. She supports adding fencing, saying, “I would love to put in a bill next session.”

“My hope is, this will deter them from using the Penobscot Narrows Bridge in the heat of the moment and maybe, just maybe, give them time to think it through,” said Rosen, who serves on the Transportation Committee.

Adding suicide prevention barriers does not mean people will just go to the next bridge, according to a 2007 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of the Memorial Bridge in Augusta, which had been the site of 14 suicides — six connected directly to the nearby Augusta Mental Health Institute — before a barrier was added in 1983. There has been none there since Maine DOT installed a fence that curves inward at the top and is nearly impossible to scale. (The Augusta City Council voted to have the fence re-installed in 2006, after it was taken down during bridge renovations.)

The Penobscot Narrows replaced the Waldo-Hancock Bridge, which also was the site of so many suicides that Maine DOT officials considered adding a fence or a separated pedestrian walkway to the new span but in the end decided against it.

Piscataqua River Bridge, which connects Maine to New Hampshire, has also been used numerous times by people to end their lives, according to media reports.

People have also jumped to their deaths from bridges in Bangor. An 18-year-old Holden man who jumped from the Veterans Remembrance Bridge in March was rescued from the icy waters below the bridge that connects Bangor and Brewer.

In March 2014, after the first six suicides from the Penobscot Narrows, former Maine Rep. Joseph Brooks of Winterport proposed an emergency bill to build a fence along the span to deter people from jumping.

The bill drew support from the parents of a 25-year-old Eddington man who committed suicide on the bridge a year earlier. It was also backed by the National Association on Mental Illness.

Brook’s emergency bill ultimately failed in committee after lawmakers said they didn’t have enough time to review the proposal thoroughly.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in Maine, according to the National Association on Mental Illness. Data from the state Department of Health and Human Services indicate that from 2010 to 2015 an average of 266 people took their lives in Maine. During that six-year period, a total of 15 people died by jumping from high places. Three of those died at the Penobscot Narrows.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and contemplating suicide, call the Maine Crisis Hotline at 1-888-568-1112. If you are not in Maine, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). A trained crisis prevention worker will be available to talk and set you up with services to help. You can also communicate directly with a crisis counselor online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

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