Local News
March 17, 2016

Lawmakers weigh suicide prevention measures at Quechee Gorge, eight in eight years have died

Lawmakers weigh suicide prevention measures at Quechee Gorge, eight in eight years have died

By Elizabeth Hewitt, VTDigger.org

Before Regina-Anne Cooper’s 21-year-old son died by suicide in 2011, he might have had second thoughts. The mother told lawmakers Tuesday, March 8, that, according to a witness, Derek Cooper tried to pull himself back over the railing before he fell approximately 14 stories from the Quechee Gorge bridge.

“There are no second chances with this bridge,” she said.

Derek Cooper was one of eight people who killed themselves at the Quechee Gorge bridge in the last eight years—a statistic that some say proves the U.S. Route 4 bridge in Hartford is becoming a focus for people considering suicide.

A bill being considered would require the state to put in place suicide prevention measures on the bridge. But the proposal has some concerned about how a structure would affect the scenic tourist destination.

Two House committees—Transportation and Human Services—took hours of emotional testimony Tuesday, March 8, hearing from family members, survivors of suicide attempts, medical experts and local business representatives.

Rep. Teo Zagar, D-Barnard, the sponsor of H.593, worked at the high school Derek Cooper attended and knew him well. Zagar introduced the bill after Cooper’s parents approached him about the lack of anti-suicide measures at the bridge.

Elaine Frank, former director of the Injury Prevention Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, said in written testimony Zagar read to the committee that firearms and jumping tend to be more effective means of suicide than others. Unlike with other methods, there is little opportunity for second thoughts and a slim chance of survival. “The initial step, pulling the trigger or jumping, is usually the final step,” Frank wrote.

JoEllen Tarallo-Falk, of the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center, told the committee that taking action to improve safety at the bridge would be part of a broader effort to reduce the access that people in mental health crisis have to lethal means. Tarallo-Falk said that suicide attempts by jumping from certain sites “are often fatal, can have a most devastating effect on witnesses, and may establish or strengthen an association of suicide with that place for other individuals at higher risk.” Meanwhile, the theory that deterring suicides at one location leads to increases at others does not bear out, she said.

Vermont consistently has a higher suicide rate than the nation, according to the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center. In 2013, there were 17.2 suicide deaths per 100,000 people in Vermont, compared with a rate of 12.6 nationally.

Tarallo-Falk cited a statistic that 90 percent of people who have attempted suicide do not try again.

Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, a co-sponsor of the bill, told the committee she is among that 90 percent. Donahue opened up about her personal history with mental illness. “Suicide is not about wanting to die. It is about a psychic pain that is intolerable and the desperate need to end that pain and the certainty that there is no hope of escape,” Donahue said. “Yet, ultimately, there is hope. I am proof of that. I did not die on a day in October of 1995 because by a stroke of fate, a friend walked into my home unexpectedly” and intervened, Donahue said.

She urged the committees to move forward with the bill. If eight people died in eight years on the same stretch of road because of car accidents, the state would take action to try to prevent further deaths, she said.

Scott Cooney, interim fire chief for the Hartford Fire Department, said that when the department responds to deaths at the bridge, the effort can involve between five and 14 rescue personnel. Cooney and Hartford Police Chief Phillip Kasten testified that the events can take a profound toll on the police and fire personnel involved. “But to the first responders that come and go, you never forget,” Kasten said. “It’s not easy.”

Kip Miller, owner of Quechee Gorge Gifts and Sportswear, said he and other business owners would support anti-suicide measures at the bridge. However, he requested that business owners be consulted as the state decides what those measures might look like.

“It’s difficult to say we like this when we don’t know what this is,” Miller said.

Multiple people at the hearing testified that there has been discussion locally and with the Agency of Transportation on how to address issues of safety on the bridge. However, despite plans being drawn up, no action has been taken yet.

The bill does not specify what should be done to improve suicide prevention and safety at the bridge. However, it would require the Agency of Transportation to complete the work by October 2017.

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