Families impacted by suicide optimistic as French King Bridge barrier project begins

By JULIAN MENDOZA

Staff Writer

Published: 08-02-2022 7:14 PM

With the French King Bridge suicide barrier project slated to begin Monday, those who know the need for it firsthand are relieved to see progress.

“I’m thrilled, because to me, the bottom line is ... once they start, it has to finish,” said Oxford resident Stacey Hamel, whose stepson, Bryan Hamel, was suspected to have jumped from the bridge linking Gill and Erving in 2018.

The project to install safety barriers at the bridge, which has garnered a reputation as a destination for suicides, was delayed after being kept off the state Department of Transportation’s Capital Investment Plan in the spring of 2020. It wasn’t until February 2021, after a series of inquiries from town officials, that MassDOT announced the project was finally moving ahead.

“It has taken far too long to have these barriers installed,” Jen Matoney, co-creator and co-facilitator of the Greenfield Suicide Loss Support Group, co-chair of the Pioneer Valley Coalition for Suicide Prevention and trainer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Massachusetts chapter, wrote in an email. “Too many lives have been lost, and too much trauma (which often has lifelong and generational implications) has been caused. I am grateful that these life-saving barriers are now being prioritized, as are many in the suicide loss community.”

The construction process began on May 20 of this year, with work including surveying and considering the best plans for demolishing existing sidewalks in anticipation of having to install wider sidewalks to accommodate the barriers, according to Gill Police Chief Christopher Redmond.

Erving town officials recently announced that the project is “expected to mobilize to the bridge, tentatively, on Monday, Aug. 1.” In addition to installing the screening, Redmond said he expects sidewalk work and removal of a defunct catwalk to be included within the scope of construction.

Erving Selectboard Chair Jacob Smith explained at the May 11 Annual Town Meeting that the project will likely span two construction seasons, with work halting for the winter and construction resuming in next spring.

The project is being funded 80% by the Federal Highway Administration and 20% by MassDOT. David Comerford of MassDOT’s contracted design firm Gill Engineering previously explained the new safety barriers will be 9 feet tall, and are intended to match the style of the bridge and limit disrupting the view of the Connecticut River. By comparison, the existing railings, which are original to the bridge’s 1932 construction, are roughly 3½ feet high.

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Traffic details will be employed “to maintain a safe work area and to keep traffic moving in a reasonable manner,” according to Erving’s statement. Redmond said the police detail will begin on Aug. 8 and that officials will try to maintain two-way traffic.

For Florence resident Judith Shea, mother of Northampton resident Naomi Shea, who jumped from the French King Bridge on Aug. 12, 2010, the prospect of the safety barrier project coming to fruition seemed hopeless.

“I wanted to devote myself to trying to get a barrier put up, but it seemed like it was not something that I would be able to accomplish, so I didn’t do anything about it,” Shea wrote in an email. “Now that it’s happening, I want to just say ‘thank you’ to the people who understand that some money and a nice view of the river is not equal to somebody’s life.”

Redmond said while he doesn’t know of a “definitive answer” as to how many people have died by suicide at the bridge, he estimated the number to fall within “the mid-20s” since when he joined the Gill Police Department in 1992. Police responding to someone threatening to jump, however, has been “almost a weekly occurrence” as the bridge has grown its reputation as a destination for suicide, Redmond said.

“We’ve seen recently where people are taking ride shares to the bridge to commit suicides,” he added, recalling a statistic that ranked the French King Bridge as the second most jumped-off bridge in the state, trailing only Boston’s Maurice J. Tobin Memorial Bridge.

Aside from those concerned that safety barriers might obstruct views from the bridge, skeptics have voiced doubts regarding the effectiveness of suicide barriers. Some have argued that those who want to take their own lives will simply find another way to do so, should their initial method of choice no longer be viable.

In her personal capacity, Erving Assistant Town Planner Mariah Kurtz advocated for the effectiveness of bridge barriers with a statement in response to the Greenfield Recorder’s May update.

“Bridge barriers are the most effective form of suicide prevention at bridges,” she wrote, citing the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s 2008 finding that “persons thwarted in utilizing a preferred method of suicide do not typically seek other approaches to kill him/herself.”

“Bridge barriers save lives by giving suicidal individuals something they desperately need — time — for the suicidal intensity to diminish or for someone to intervene with mental health support and resources,” Matoney added. “Research has shown that of all potential interventions to prevent suicides at bridges — signs, hotline call boxes, bridge patrols, staff training — physical barriers are the most effective. Contrary to what many believe, the majority of people averted from a suicide attempt at a bridge, by a barrier for example, do not go on to die by suicide elsewhere or via another method.”

“Barriers are not a substitute for an overhaul in our mental health medical system, but two small towns and MassDOT are not able to control that,” Kurtz said. “However, they can control the physical infrastructure to this bridge to prevent further tragedy at this site with lasting trauma to the community.”

Those who have lost a loved one to suicide at the French King Bridge drew on their intuition to debunk skepticism about the effectiveness of bridge barriers. Hamel argued that even while some suicidal people might resort to an alternative method, “maybe not all of them” would.

Shea said she doesn’t believe her daughter would have killed herself if the French King Bridge were not an option. Naomi, Shea wrote, “felt it was dramatic and attractive to jump off.” Shea later said the bridge is akin to “a beckoning finger,” tempting troubled people with the idea that it can “take your life from you and solve all your problems.”

“She chose sunset to end her life,” Shea wrote of her daughter. “The fact that that bridge and that whole setting is so beautiful make it the suicide option of choice. I think it adds to the appeal of someone who wants to end their life in a special way. But if that image contains a barrier that makes it impossible to jump off and end your life, then they will turn to something else, and maybe they won’t find anything that they want as much.”

Reach Julian Mendoza at 413-772-0261, ext. 261 or jmendoza@recorder.com.

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