After seven suicides in the last 10 months, and with a $2.6 million renovation in the offing, the question again arises: What can be done to prevent people from jumping of the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge?
The answer, sadly, may be not much.
That assessment — reached in a recently released state Department of Transportation study of the question — doesn’t satisfy Taos County Volunteer Fire Chief Jim Fambro, whose job it is to retrieve the bodies of bridge jumpers. Fambro, says retrievals in the all-but-inaccessible gorge are dangerous. His teams have had to retrieve more than 100 bodies over the years.
Doing nothing to prevent suicides from the bridge doesn’t satisfy mental health professionals, either, who say that physical barriers are effective at preventing would-be suicides from acting, and that most then go on to live a normal life span.
The state senator from the area says he thinks the suicide problem could be getting worse, and he could be right: When the Legislature mandated the prevention study two years ago, about three people a year, on average, plunged to their deaths from the Gorge Bridge. But in just 10 months there have been seven jumpers, the most recent was late last month.
According to the study, prevention is hampered by three problems. First, the bridge is on both the state and national historic registers. That doesn’t mean it can’t be modified — suicide barriers have been planned (but not built) for San Francisco’s far more iconic Golden Gate Bridge. But in almost every place such barriers have been proposed, some segment of the public has opposed them.
Second, highway engineers say because the Gorge Bridge dates back to 1965, it’s probably unable to support the extra weight of a tall barrier to prevent jumpers. The renovations will strengthen the bridge, but apparently not enough for a barrier to be added. Other suicide-plagued bridges, including the Golden Gate, have presented similar difficulties.
Finally, even if the barrier were simple and light — like a safety net — it’s still likely to be prohibitively expensive. Building a net to catch jumpers from the Golden Gate, for example, will cost an estimated $60 million; though approved last year, it still hasn’t been installed.
Telephones and guards have helped prevent suicides at other bridges. The Legislature might consider them for New Mexico’s suicide magnet. Fambro’s safety concerns are another area the Legislature could address.
In the absence of lots and lots of money, however, there seem indeed to be few other practical ways to prevent the recurring tragedy that seems to plague all high and beautiful bridges.